Use psychology to craft a more compelling presentation

Color, in particular, can either calm or excite your audience, and proper vocal tone and your embrace of your listeners can engender and sustain your rapport with them.

The concept of figuring out the psychology behind effective presentations is not new.

Even before 1800 when Old Master paintings were being created, artists had the skill to control the movement of the eye of the beholder. They would bring it to a focal point of the canvas and then move it from point to point. They knew how to grab people’s attention immediately with the subtle use of lines and colors.

Since the 1980s, an increasing number of effective presenters have looked to science to help them figure out the psychology of landing their message.

Significant insights came from a milestone 1986 study sponsored by 3M and headed by D.R. Vogel, G.W. Dickson and J.A. Lehman at the University of Minnesota.

The researchers concluded that people who use visual aids are 43 percent more persuasive than those who don’t. They determined that visuals can also improve communication effectiveness, the students’ perception of the presenter and the speaker’s confidence.

Furthermore, the study concluded that if black-and-white visuals were replaced with colorful ones, attention and retention of the presentation’s key message increased even more.

Judicious use of color can evoke specific emotions.

Two other examinations of the use of color played a key psychological role in prompting certain desired emotional responses.

Tom and Rich Mucciolo, in their book “Purpose, Movement, Color: A Strategy for Effective Communications” advise that if you want to get a sales team excited and hungry to hit the streets looking for new business, most of your slides and any handouts should have a red background.

These same authors suggest that if you want to pass along bad news and avoid an outburst from your audience, you should use blue in your visuals. Apparently, it has the power to slow the pulse rate of your audience.

In “The Presentation Design Book,” Margaret Rabb suggests that if you want to upset and confuse your audience, your visual should employ complementary colors—those that stand opposite each other on the color wheel, such as red and green.

She said that when these colors appear side by side on a slide, they seem to move and are unnerving to look at, even if the audience doesn’t understand why.

Pay attention to your slides’ background colors.

Rabb says background color can affect the audience’s emotional state. For example, a pink background weakens everything you have to say, a red background excites competitiveness, and a pale blue background calms viewers.

The issue with much of the research, however, is its limitation of being applied primarily to the North American culture. Later students of color have pointed out that different cultures derive varying affects from certain colors.

That insight adds a whole new element to evoking emotional reactions with color: You must be fully aware of the diversity of your audience. Additionally, men and women also respond differently to certain colors, so gender must be considered as well.

Is your tone setting up an emotional connection?

The psychology behind effective presentations is also the subject of a book by UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian. In ” Silent Messages,” he outlines the results of his research into nonverbal communication.

He suggests that people base their emotional impressions regarding the credibility of the speaker on factors other than the words being spoken. Based on his studies, the tone of the presenter’s voice affected the audience 38 percent and his or her facial expression 55 percent.

Most audiences assigned only 7 percent of their credibility assessment to the presenter’s words.

How can you make all that research work for you? Here are eight ways to use psychology to your advantage in your next presentation:

1. Establish at the start of your speech that you like your audience, because they will respond in turn by liking you. Compliment them sincerely. Praise their work, their community and, if reasonable, their creativity and commitment.

2. Maintain energy in your voice throughout your presentation. If you feel your voice trailing off and fatigue setting in, kick-start yourself to get energy back into your voice.

3. Ensure that what you say is of value to those listening. Psychology can’t cover you if you really have nothing interesting to impart.

4. Avoid pink and all its shades in your graphics. It will undermine you and make you look ineffective.

5. Use red at your peril. It’s true that it can evoke strong emotions, but not all are positive.

6. Don’t rule out black, as it sends a message of starting fresh. Don’t overuse it, though, especially with white type in it, because that is difficult for many people to read. Solid black slides provide good emotional breaks between parts of a speech, however.

7. If you use more than one color on a slide, arrange the colors from dark to light. Think of the way we feel peaceful and serene when we extend our gaze from land to water and then up to the big and lighter sky.

8. Don’t let your graphics overshadow your key messages. Large shapes such as bars or circles attract viewers’ eyeballs. Your audience will see your words last.

Ashish Arora is the co-founder of, a provider of results-driven, professional presentation templates. You can find him on Twitter or LinkedIn.

COMMENT Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from directly in your inbox.