Psychology for Public Speaking

Author: Neil Brannigan

I believe that psychology should be an integral consideration when preparing a speech or presentation. Studies have shown that an audience only retains 50% of what was said 10 minutes after a presentation, dropping to 5-10% after a week. To create an effective presentation, we must circumnavigate the potential damage this memory loss can have.

Firstly, it is not possible for a human being to remember 100% of your presentation – we are not robots. Yet, utilising visual aids, interactive learning and self-reflection improve audience retention significantly. In fact, we remember around 90% of things we teach others compared to just 10% of what we read (William Glasser). Therefore, to an extent, we can improve audience memory although, it is not the complete solution. More helpfully, we can work around the issue by keeping our presentations clear, to the point and well structured. I have highlighted my suggestions on how to achieve this below.


I would suggest using a simple three-part structure for any presentation lasting between thirty to sixty minutes. Begin by introducing the topic; sandwich the ‘meat’ (or dietary equivalent) of the topic in the middle; and, finish with a recap of the major points. This keeps your presentation to the point and limits your desire to go off track. Furthermore, recapping on your key message is vital to a successful presentation. This is your opportunity to home in on those critical points and check your audience has understood the presentation.

Know your objectives

Throughout your presentation, you must consider exactly what you want your audience to learn. This is something you must consider before constructing your presentation and is akin to teachers using ‘learning outcomes’ to design lessons. Focussing on these key objectives will help to make sure the audience remembers the important 10% of your presentation, not the 10% you spent rambling on about some obscure point.

Focus on your conclusions

Not only do humans forget things, they are also very lazy listeners. Most studies suggest an audience loses concentration after around 20 minutes however, I disagree with this logic. The audience will not be attentive for a consistent period of 20 minutes, rather, their attention will vary throughout. To capitalise on this, you are best to drive home key points at the end of a segment. Make these points abundantly clear to the audience by speaking slower or by varying your voice tone. Reserving these points for the end of a segment, or the presentation’s conclusion, will leave the audience with a lasting message which they are more likely to remember.

Speak Slowly

If there is one piece of advice that I can give to improving the effectiveness of your presentations it is to slow down. As I mentioned in the above section, speaking slowly during pivotal moments of your speech will have far more effect than adding words. Leaving a long pause after you make a particularly important point gives the audience time to reflect on what has been said.

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