Movie Magic: How to sync with your audience

Nancy Duarte

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Nancy Duarte

Audience in SyncStudies from Princeton professor Uri Hasson show that certain movies can actually synchronize the brains of the audience. The article reports that viewers “tend to blink at the same time,” and that, “Even their brain activity is, to a remarkable degree, synchronized.”

As professional “presentation people,” especially ones who love cinematic presentations, Duarte is always looking for ways to help presenters increase audience engagement and measure the success of their presentations—and this research may help presenters become better at both.

Duarte’s methodology is rooted in time-honored visual storytelling principles captured from both cinema and literature. We know that these techniques work, but research like Hasson’s is beginning to show us exactly how.

You’ve probably experienced the subtle effects of this cinematic synchronicity while watching a great movie, but what about during a great presentation?

Not all movies, it turns out, have the same mind-melding power. Structured movies that use a lot of cinematic devices—cuts, and camera angles, and carefully composed shots designed to control viewers’ attention—do it to a greater extent than movies of unstructured reality.

So, how can this information help you craft a more successful presentation? Most presentations are rooted firmly in reality, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t create a cinematic experience for your audience.

Visual storytelling techniques are intended to help you clarify and control how your audience receives your idea. Just like careful camera work and composition help filmmakers impact their audience, beautiful and thoughtfully designed slides help you achieve the same purpose. Of course you don’t need to treat every presentation like a feature film, but you can use cinematic devices to help you make your talk more impactful, and even more synchronous.

Brains in Sync

We can see examples of this synchronicity in presentations like Steve Jobs’ 2007 launch of the iPhone. Yes, the audience often laughed and clapped in unison, but applause and laughter tend to be fairly cued and controlled behaviors. However, when Jobs revealed the iPhone’s scrolling feature, the audience let out an audible gasp. This sudden, involuntary reaction is similar to the subconscious synchronicity we see in Hasson’s brain scans. Using techniques like shocking statistics, evocative visuals, and memorable dramatization, Jobs’ presentation was able to keep the audience engaged and synchronized.

We can also see this synchronicity in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech during the 1963 March on Washington. King’s speech famously used poetic repetition, pacing, and visual metaphors to engage and electrify his audience. The speech was almost musical, using cadence to create suspense and synchronicity.

These techniques work both ways. As the article states,“If you want people to think alike and be in synch, you could use this tool. If you want people to think differently, you could also use it.” Think about the goal of your presentation. If you’re hoping to have everyone leave the room with a single idea or value, you may want to invest time in making your presentation environment as cinematic as possible. But if you need your audience to leave the presentation thinking critically, you may want to employ the “unstructured reality” approach.

In addition to understanding and encouraging audience engagement, this research may help us learn to measure the success of a presentation, a task that can be difficult or altogether impossible.

Social media provides analytical data in the form of views, likes, and tweets, but it doesn’t apply to every presentation, and still may not accurately depict its success. For unpublicized presentations without an explicit call to action, it can be nearly impossible to gauge how well they’re received. Quantitative data—like applause, audience testimonials, and even water cooler conversation—feels great in the moment, but it can be inaccurate and unwieldy to capture.

In the information age, quantitative data is king. And unfortunately, in the presentation world, hard data is hard to come by. Hasson’s research gets us a little closer to understanding the power behind stories and presentations. Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky joked, “’Soon they’ll do test screenings with people in MRIs.’ The audience laughed, but it didn’t seem like he was joking, at least not entirely.”

Who knows, it may be time for Duarte to invest in an MRI machine. For a good presentation, we’ll try just about anything.

A version of this post first appeared on LinkedIn.