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Behavioral science hacks for your next speaking opportunity

Use these behavioral science tips in your next presentation.

4 min read


Behavioral science


“Congratulations — you’ve won a prize! I’d like to reward you with an indulgent treat of creamy, luxurious chocolate. Now, which would you prefer: just a small piece in the shape of a heart? Or, a much larger portion … in the shape of a giant cockroach?”

I posed this question to my audience as a photo of an enormous chocolate bug enveloped the screen. The crowd squirmed, giggled, and leaned in.

I was giving a presentation on behavioral science and customer experience at the end of a long conference. Sure, I could’ve hit my listeners over the head with an academic discourse on predicted utility versus value-seeking, but showing it drove the point home. Neuroscience suggests a reason why novelty is so effective — it triggers dopamine pathways in our brains.

There is a lot going on in our minds when we take in a presentation, much of it beneath our layer of consciousness. Insights from behavioral science offer endless ways to delight our audiences on an emotional level. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. Be a tease

What is it about a cliffhanger that makes the next episode of our favorite show so hard to postpone? We are an inherently curious species, compelled to resolve uncertainty.

Christopher Hsee, author of the aforementioned cockroach study, found in another experiment that while killing idle time, participants clicked more pens that had the unknown potential of possibly delivering an electric shock over a selection of pens which were certain not to shock them. We would literally zap ourselves just to indulge our curiosity!

Rather than revealing your big idea right away, include a teaser or novel question beforehand. Create a curiosity gap to make your audience members eager for the punchline.

2. Paint a picture

When John F. Kennedy galvanized the US space program in 1962 with the iconic phrase, “We choose to go the moon,” he didn’t obfuscate the message with abstract language, and there’s a reason.

“We intend to organize the most technologically advanced space mission department to achieve astronomical visions before those of competitive nations” somehow doesn’t pack the same punch. Instead, he wisely chose to use image-based language, painting an clear picture of a man on the moon for the whole country to envision.

Andrew Carton’s research on this topic highlights how using concrete language can better connect our audience to our message by engendering a sense of shared cognition. Literally, the audience sees the same picture when you paint it for them. So scrap the business jargon, and choose words you would use to describe what you see in a photograph. Even better if you have relevant sensory words related to smell or taste, which are shown to activate corresponding sensory centers in the brain (Hello, chocolate cockroach!).

3. Check in with your body

Public speaking can strike fear in even the most confident speakers. If you’re nervous, don’t bother trying to calm down before speaking. Instead, tell yourself you’re excited, not anxious. Valence, the emotional framing of your experience, is easier to change than the intensity of that experience.

If all else fails, just see if you can turn the room temperature up a notch. Our physical temperature affects how warmly we feel toward others. One study found that students who held a hot mug of coffee perceived fictitious personalities as more generous and caring than those who held a cold mug. If the room is warm, perhaps your audience will warm to you.

There’s no such thing as a passive audience. Behavioral science helps us tap into the busy brain activity that creates lasting impressions.


Charlotte Blank is chief behavioral officer of Maritz, which helps firms move people, through motivation, events, and experiences. Charlotte forges the connection between academic behavioral theory and applied solution practice, and Incentive Magazine named her among 2016’s 25 Most Influential People in the Incentive Industry.

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