How to Be a Better Presenter

A neuroscientist and a storyteller walk into a bar. Well, it was more like a breakfast spot, but the pairing was unusual enough to be the start of a good joke. Earlier that week, IDEO’s Dav Rauch had given a presentation to a packed room of conference attendees. The neuroscientist, Allan Snyder, invited him to breakfast to chat about Dav’s presentation and share some of his own work. The research he explained over that breakfast led Dav to an epiphany that fundamentally changed his understanding of storytelling and the way he presents information.

Before we get into that research, you should know a bit more about Dav. Dav is an IDEO Portfolio Director with 20 years of experience in interaction, design, and storytelling in the film industry, including work on the movies Iron Man, Avatar, and Sin City. At IDEO he’s helped craft the Museum of the Future in Dubai, explore consumer autonomous space flight, design male contraception, and lots of other boundary-pushing projects. He’s also an instructor in our online course Impactful Presentations. His ability to think creatively and craft persuasive presentations helps him bring new ideas to clients at IDEO.

In this episode of the Creative Confidence Podcast, he talks about how to be a better presenter, how to tap into something he calls “the storytelling reflex,” and why it’s so important to prepare your audience before diving into a presentation or talk.

Break out of pattern recognition mode

So, what was the research the neuroscientist presented? It has to do with the function of our left brain and right brain. The left brain helps us recognize patterns. “Our brains are constantly finding patterns in the world,” Dav says. “We find patterns from our past and project them onto the present to understand what's happening around us.” This function helps us stay safe and avoid danger, and it’s usually the side in control. But the right brain is what makes us special as humans. It fuels our ability to be creative, imagine new ideas, and think about new and different futures.

The neuroscientist Dav met was studying the left- and right-brain functions through the lens of autism. He found that people with autism were better able to solve the nine dot problem, a classic puzzle designed to test a person’s ability to think outside the box. Autistic people display inhibited function of the left-brain ability to observe patterns, like picking up on social and behavioral cues, which enables them to see ideas others might not be able to. To test this theory, he created a brain cap that temporarily induced autism and found that the cap helped people solve the nine dot problem 40 percent more often.

Dav’s epiphany was that storytelling does something similar to our brains. “When you’re immersed in a really good story, it requires your brain to shift from the pattern recognition part of your brain to the imaginative side of the brain,” Dav explains. This “storytelling reflex” is innate in all of us. We don’t need a brain cap to produce that same kind of mental shift. We can do it through storytelling.

Prepare your audience to receive new ideas

As presenters, we’re trying to convince people to open up to new ideas or see things in a new way. At IDEO, we’re often hired to come up with innovative solutions to old problems. The pattern-making side of our brain is so dominant that if we don't take care to activate the imaginative side first, our audience won't be able to receive those new ideas.

You can structure your story perfectly, but if what you’re presenting requires someone to use their imagination to process it, it won’t have an impact unless they’re in the right mindset to do so.

Dav suggests three approachable ways you can break your audience out of pattern recognition mode and shift them into imaginative mode (without the use of a brain cap).

Tell a story

To engage your audience from the beginning, start your presentation with a story that relates back to your big idea. Hearing stories triggers our imagination. Better yet, get your audience to tell a story to you. Ask them to answer a simple future-forward question, such as “What’s your fantasy vacation destination?” In order to answer that question, each person will have to think about the future and then tell a story about it—all things that will force them to shift into imaginative mode.

Dav says people often think of creative warm ups like this as a nice-to-have (or even a waste of time), but he sees them as one of the most important moments in your presentation. They’re like the plate that holds the meal—they prepare your audience to hear what you have to say.


“When you’re immersed in a really good story, it requires your brain to shift from the pattern recognition part of your brain to the imaginative side of the brain.”
Dav Rauch


Engage the senses

“The single easiest way to tell a better story is to engage the senses,” Dav says. Using the senses creates depth and texture in a story. It taps into our imagination and emotion as we relate to those senses and think about how we would experience them.

In the podcast episode, Dav tells a story about his son’s baseball game. By incorporating descriptive language and sound effects, like a cork popping sound when the bat hits the ball, he creates a celebratory feeling and pulls the audience in.

When you’re presenting, think about what you’re seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling or tasting and incorporate a couple of those senses into your story. It’s guaranteed to get better.

Break expectations

Surprise is an age-old element of great storytelling. Every memorable story has a twist that helps shift our mindset. By incorporating something unexpected into your presentation you’ll help your audience stay engaged and have a more emotional reaction.

Dav used this tactic when presenting to a team at the Emmy’s. They had hired IDEO to help redesign the Emmy’s television awards judging process. Being a judge for the Emmy’s is an incredibly overwhelming job, with more hours of shows to watch and critique in a short amount of time than is humanly possible. As his team presented their idea for a redesign, they wanted their audience to viscerally feel the overwhelm that the judges feel so that they’d see the dire need for a new process and be open to different ideas. So while Dav talked through some numbers to show the enormous amount of work required, he stacked up DVDs to visually demonstrate the large quantity...and then spilled them all over the table. Executives threw up their hands to avoid being hit with DVDs as the pile exploded across the room.

While Dav worried he may have gone too far, the Emmy’s team insisted IDEO use the DVD stunt when presenting their redesign ideas across the organization. Why? Because the surprise of it conveyed the emotion of overwhelm so clearly that everyone in the room agreed a new approach to the judging process was absolutely necessary.

Do more than share data

Think about how many dreadful slide deck presentations you've been to that are just a bunch of numbers. Dav says you can do that if you want, but it’s unlikely your audience will remember much. Try some of his techniques for engaging your audience—telling a story, using the senses, or the element of surprise—to make your presentation more memorable and impactful. If nothing else, start with a creative warm up to get your audience in the right mindset.

“Humans are hardwired for storytelling,” Dav says. Use this innate storytelling reflex to help your audience absorb new information and get the most out of your presentation.

Learn to craft human-centered presentations in our course Impactful Presentations. You’ll learn to surface what matters to your audience and deliver your message in a way that resonates and inspires action.

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