The Best Presentations in the World: Your Money-Back Guarantee

GUEST COLUMN | by Lynell Burmark

You have them for less than an hour. You want to make it an experience they’ll always remember. You need to connect with them right away and break down any resistance to your message so your content can flow straight into their long-term memory.

Want a sure-fire plan with a “money-back” guarantee? Ready? Two words: Monet. Bach. (No extra charge for bad puns.) Really. It’s that simple: (1) Images (2) Music.


Of everything in the human sensory toolbox, “Vision is probably the single best tool we have for learning anything…. The more visual the input becomes, the more likely it is to be recognized – and recalled. The phenomenon is so pervasive, it has been given its own name: the pictorial superiority effect, or PSE.” (Read John Medina’s Brain Rules)

Human PSE is truly Olympian. Want to speed up your presentation? Humans process images 60,000 times faster than text (see Polishing Your Presentation). Trying to increase motivation and participation by up to 80 percent? Display those pictures in color (refer to The Power of Color). Like to boost recall and retention by 46 percent and transfer (application of learning) 89 percent? Use full-screen photographic images with voice-over narration. (Read Richard Mayer’s Multimedia Learning)

One of my favorite ways to open a presentation (or introduce a new topic) is to project an image and – before I add any commentary – ask the members of the audience to get into groups of three and discuss what they see. It’s a sure-fire way to get people involved and a quick-and-easy way to check on prior knowledge.

After a few minutes of discussion, ask the groups to share out. What did you see? Color? Texture? Composition? Who’s the artist? What’s the name of the painting? Where was it painted?

To go deeper, you can also ask: What’s the story behind it? If no one knows, encourage powering up the smart phones to research it. In no time, someone will discover that Vincent VanGogh hung four variations of this Sunflowers still life in the guest room of his home in the South of France in order to welcome his friend, Paul Gauguin, who was coming to visit from Paris. Dig a little deeper and learn that VanGogh referred to these as his “gratitude paintings,” so grateful was he for the friendship with Gauguin. And (yes, there’s more!) because of the emotion VanGogh held in his heart when creating the paintings, scientists have measured that just looking at this image will boost your immune system for up to six hours! (Refer to this) (Go ahead. Look at it again.)

Whatever subject you want to present, find that compelling image and let your audience discover its richness, peeling back the layers like an onion. The image (as images do) will go to long-term memory (more about this here) and all the information will be “velcro’d” to that image and easily retrievable any time your audience members recall the image in their mind’s eye or see it displayed, even in a totally different context.


To lure us into their fantasy worlds, to complement their world-class images, successful media productions all use music. Think of classic television programs like Cheers. Can you hear that theme song in your mind’s ear? What about blockbuster movies like Titanic? Who can forget “My Heart Will Go On”? Like the laugh-track overlays for most television sit-coms, music tracks dictate our emotional state and then confirm the emotions we are feeling.

A few years back, at the annual ASCD conference, I was scheduled to speak on stress reduction. Even though it was the last session on the last day of the conference, the room was packed. As I was about to begin, one visibly stressed attendee challenged me: “This better be good. I stayed for this.”

How could I respond to that attitude-laden comment? As ASCD’s queen of Visual Literacy (Electronic version available, summer 2012), I practice what I preach and always start my presentations by projecting a full-screen photographic image. But even a gorgeous photo of an inviting, palm-tree dotted beach in Maui couldn’t have calmed that crowd! So, I popped in a music video with dulcimer tones at 60 beats per minute (the rate of the resting human heartbeat). Was I manipulating their emotions with music? Yes. Had they given me permission to do so? Definitely.

Since that time, I have taken to playing music videos as people enter the room for every presentation. (You can always count on most of your audience arriving stressed out.) I highly recommend “Zen: The Art of Relaxation.” Within seconds, all tension and hostility melts into calm attentiveness and we can have a stress-free, focused time of learning together. It doesn’t matter if you can’t carry a tune in a bucket. You can learn to download music from YouTube and get it to play in your PowerPoint. (Questions? E-mail me for step-by-step instructions.)

As a dedicated professional, you must be as masterful with music as you are with images. Sometimes you only have an hour. No time to waste.


Lynell Burmark, Ph.D., is the CEO of  For a plethora of fascinating research, real-world examples, and replicable activities and presentation strategies (all included on the DVD), see her latest book, They Snooze, You Lose: The Educator’s Guide to Successful Presentations (Jossey-Bass/Wiley 2011), or invite Dr. Burmark to present at your next conference or professional development event. Call (408) 497-6113.

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