In my previous post, “Let’s get physical! — physical presentations” I wrote about the importance of using presentation materials that use multiple senses. In this post I’ll dig deeper into the importance of each sense in the levels of emotional engagement and the creation of memories.
To understand how our senses influence the our memory, it’s helpful to talk about how memories are stored in and retrieved from the brain. Human memories are scattered across the brain, with different parts of the brain being dedicated to specific types of information. For example, visual information is processed in the visual cortex, in the occipital lobe, whereas sound is processed in the auditory cortex, in the temporal lobe. At a high level, when we recall a specific memory, the different parts of the brain that contain pieces of the memory are activated and the hippocampus compiles all the information into one distinct memory.
Everyday our senses fill us with information about our environment and situations. We process information at different levels and we store what is meaningful in our long-term memory. The information stored in the long-term memory is what we normally call “memories”. Emotion is one of the main factors in the creation of memories. For example, we remember better those events that are emotionally charged and we remember positive memories for longer.
Below, I’ve compiled some high-level information around the interactions between our senses and emotion.
Smell, or olfaction, is the perception of chemicals in the food or floating in the air through receptors in the nose. The information captured by the receptors is then processed by the olfactory bulb in the frontal cortex and sent to different parts of the brain.
Smells create extremely powerful memories. Olfaction is known to be closely related to the memory, and the links created by smells survive in the memory longer than any other sense. “Memories of images begin to fade days or even hours after viewing, whereas recall of smells remains unimpaired for as much as a year” (‘Link proved between senses and memory’). Due to their long lasting effect, a specific smell can trigger old memories that we didn’t know we remembered, in an instant.
Smell is a big aspect in branding and product, for example, past studies demonstrated that scented machines in a casino attracted 45% more people than unscented ones. Also, brands like Abercrombie and Massimo Dutti incorporate smell as part of their brand identity.
Controlling the smells during your presentation can trigger a better emotional response to your speech and improve memorability. Consider the type of product you’re presenting, how it relates to the audience, and how you can use smell to reinforce your message. Or maybe just spray a nice, soft scent to set people in the right mood.
Touch, or somatosensory perception, happens through the activation of receptors present in the skin. Sensations can appear from pressure, temperature, or pain. The information gathered travels through the peripheral nervous system, to the central nervous system and the brain.
Touch is the first sense to develop in children and it remains the most emotional throughout our lives — we are able to distinguish the emotional state of another person based on the way they touch us. It is the sense that is most linked to our body, and the one that allows us to affirm our emotional connection to others as well as the connection from others to us. Physical proximity and touch are signs of trust, and more physical proximity increases that trust. For example, people are more likely to purchase items in a store if they can touch them, and to feel a stronger affinity for brands with which they‘ve had a physical interaction.
Touching a product allows us to identify characteristics about it such as weight and texture, and this lets us to judge the quality of the product. It also allows us to look at it from different perspectives and feel related to it.
With a physical presentation you can let your audience touch it, interact with it, maybe change some things in it, and add their own ideas. It will make them feel closer to it, creating an emotional connection that will help them remember your message more accurately.
Taste, or gustation, is the detection of chemicals through the taste buds on the tongue. We can identify 5 different basic tastes that combined, they create what we know as the flavour. Flavours influence our brain in multiple ways: sweet, savoury and salty foods influence moods, emotions and memories, whereas bitter flavours tend to make us move away or even gag. Therefore, when we see our favourite ice cream, our brain links the taste with the happiness it creates making you drool, or when we taste something rotten we feel the urge to vomit.
You can take full advantage of the emotional connections of taste in presentations by, for example, providing catering that appeals to the audience, with a variety of flavours they can associate with positive emotions researching your audience’s food preferences to ensure everyone’s needs are met; taking into account the weather and season; etc. However, if you can’t have catering, bring some biscuits or fruit to the room, and people will be much more open to hear what you have to say.
Sight, or vision, is the ability to process light to perceive images. Light enters through the pupil and is focused in the retina, where the photoreceptors generate nerve impulses that are sent to the occipital lobe in the back of the brain.
Sight is the first sense we use to categorise emotions. We’ve all heard the saying “an image is worth a thousand words”, it means we can acquire a large amount of information from details in a picture based on previous experiences and knowledge, and we can even feel identified with the situation. We recognise an immense variety of things in an image like face expressions, body language, weather conditions, shapes, colours, danger, etc; we know if a situation is pleasant or unpleasant and we can be emotionally affected by simply looking at a picture. Essentially, what we see affects how we feel.
The visual aspect of presentations has been largely discussed in the past years. The use of Powerpoint slides became mainstream many years ago and a lot of research has gone into that field, with key recommendations around avoiding long chunks of text and too many bullet points; using related, high-quality images; limiting the use of animations and ppt templates; knowing your charts, colours, and fonts; and using video.
All these principles can and should be applied to any other presentation material you decide to use. The visual aspect of any material you use should be carefully crafted, as any unattended detail will divert the attention of the audience (just like a low-resolution image would on a slide). Also, colour theory, font sizes, and image quality should be considered to make sure that everyone can see and enjoy the materials you are presenting.
Hearing, or audition, is the ability to process air vibrations into sounds. Humans can detect a range between 20 and 20.000 Hertz. Information related to sounds is processed in the auditory cortex, in the temporal lobes of the brain.
Sounds create powerful emotional connections, from feeling happy when you hear the voice of a friend whom you haven’t spoken to in years, to nostalgic when you hear a song from your youth, or scared when you hear the hissing of a snake. Sounds have the ability to attract our attention, keep us focused, and awake in us all sorts of feelings.
During presentations, the obvious use of sound is through speech. Speech is a powerful tool that, managed properly, allows you to keep your audience’s attention. There is a lot of research about speech in presentations, but in general, it helps to have changes in the volume and rhythm to emphasise specific words or phrases, to maintain a good volume throughout the presentation to ensure everyone in your audience can hear you, and to manage the timbre of your voice to accentuate emotions.
You can also use ambient sounds during a presentation to help your audience feel more connected to the topic you’re discussing — think of a movie, where ambient sounds help create the scenario, but don’t distract you from the conversation between the characters. For example, if you’re talking about an airport, it may help to use background airport noises to bring the space to life. Background music can also be effective to set an atmosphere in the place where the presentation is happening, just make sure it doesn’t compete with your speech.
By using materials that appeal to all the senses you’re opening the door to multiple types of emotional connection, and increasing the chances of your audience to engage and agree with you. You’re also improving the memorability and understandability of your presentation by activating different parts of the brain to communicate your message in the form of multiple sensations.
When you find yourself preparing your next presentation, consider carefully how you’re planning to manage each sense to create the biggest impact in your audience.
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