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Brain rules for PowerPoint & Keynote presenters

Brain_works As I have said many times: if you want to learn how to be a great presenter, look outside the public-speaking and presentation-skills literature, and certainly look beyond advice on how to use ephemeral software apps like PowerPoint and Keynote. Every year it seems a new book comes out with practical applications for presenters and speakers, even though it's not a book about presentations at all. For example, best-selling books like A Whole New Mind, and Made to Stick had valuable lessons and applications for presenters; some of the ideas from those two books ended up in Presentation Zen. This year, thanks to the Authors@Google speaking series (where I also spoke in March), I stumbled across this 50-minute talk by Dr. John Medina outlining a few of his key points from Brain Rules. I was impressed with the content, so I bought the book. Then I read the book, and was blown away. In a way, we already know the rules put forth by Dr. Medina in his book, such as vision is the dominant sense (rule#10). We certainly know the power of the visual — a picture is worth a thousand words, etc. — yet we fail to take advantage of this properly in the area of presentation design, web design, document design, and so on. We all know that people don't pay attention to boring things (rule #4), yet the majority of presentations on this planet are less than compelling (to say the least).

Using our brains
Brainrulescover Because most of us are not brain scientists, we have virtually no knowledge of how the brain works. If we did, we wouldn't try to drive and use our cell phones at the same time, or create high-stress office environments, or design schools where most of the real learning is done at home, or live on 3-5 hours of sleep a night, etc. What Brain Rules attempts to do is explain what brain scientists know about the brain in ways that we can use to improve our daily lives at school and work. I highly recommend the book. Brain Rules is one of the most informative, engaging, and useful books of our time. Required reading for every educator and every business person. My favorite book of 2008. Seriously – if you can get only one book this year, make it this one. At about 20 bucks on Amazon.com (with a nice DVD with useful video segments), it's a great value. Still, depending on where you are in the world or your current economic situation, even $20-30 is a lot more than free. But you're in luck. John Medina was very gracious in building such a good website and giving many of the ideas from the book away for free on his site and in videos on YouTube. And the Google talk has some good stuff too. The segments on the website also cite the sources of the original research.

12 brain rules
All 12 brain rules have practical applications for our personal and professional lives. I read the book (twice, so far) with presentations in mind. I created a slide presentation below which is a rough compilation of some key ideas and quotes from just three of the chapters. (1) Exercise. People who exercise "outperform couch potatoes in long-term memory, reasoning, attention, and problem solving," says Medina. (2) Attention. "You've got seconds to grab someone's attention and only 10 minutes to keep it." (3) Vision. "Professionals everywhere need to know about the incredible inefficiency of text-based information and the incredible effects of images." People should "burn their PowerPoint presentations," says Medina, "and make new ones."

Above: I started creating slides to use for my own talks based on some of the ideas in Brain Rules, then I thought I might as well share them. The slides may make better sense if you read the book or spend some time on brainrules.com. This deck is meant to be viewed online in about 10-12 minutes or less; it contains far more text than I would use in a talk. (Note: for some reason some of the slides got resized a bit in the Slideshare viewer which ruins some of the "animation." But if you download the PDF deck the slides look fine.).

Brain Rules video clips
The Brain Rules book includes a nice bonus DVD. Below are a few clips from the DVD related to the three rules I focused on in the presentation. After an introduction of the Brain Rules objective, this clip discusses the importance of the first rule, exercise. (YouTube link.)

Attention: the myth of multitasking
We can do many things at once, but when it comes to paying attention, is "multitasking" really effective? (YouTube link.)

Vision trumps all other senses
The power of images. How can we communicate more with visuals? (YouTube link.)

Death by PowerPoint

As much as possible, make it visual...bullets can be dangerous.(YouTube link.)

Seattle Times interview with Dr. Medina by
Richard Seven
One chapter and videos on iTunes
Brain Rules on YouTube
12 brain rules from his website
Harvard Business Review on Brain Rules
Brain Rules in the media, podcasts, etc.

Other books I highly recommend
They're not about PowerPoint or presentations/public speaking, but they'll help improve your presentations.

The Visual Story: Creating the Visual Structure of Film, TV and Digital Media
Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Visual Communication of Data
Universal Principles of Design


tara majumdar

Hey Garr,

Great seeing your post today- thought whats up, were you ill or what -missed your posts !
Have ordered the book, loved your book ppt, great stuff truly. Just gave me the brainwave that I should start creating slideshos for books I like coz it will also help me sharpen my ppt skills.

the Weir

Garr, great post & welcome back!

Now I've got to make time to get some of this stuff into my brain!

T. Benjamin Larsen

Great stuff as always Garr. The bit about the power of visuals is something I've been convinced of for quite some time, great to see someone backing it up with science.

About the exercise : Makes me wonder just how smart Stephen Hawking would be if he wasn't physically handicapped!

Michael Sporer

This is great! You are correct about his compelling website, and I ordered the book. My business associate did a presentation about giving presentations that followed a similar line, especially concerning vision. I like the way you laid out your post, too.....

Todd Fong

Garr - thanks so much for taking the time to summarize some of the points of this book in a slide deck. It was very humorous and compelling to click through. When I have more time, I'll watch the longer videos of Dr. Medina as well.

I also keep a bookshelf for my staff here in the office and I will definitely get a copy of the book to put on it. In fact, maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea to get a treadmill to put next to the bookcase so we can read and exercise at the same time!

Betsy Hansel

I have definitely seen the benefits of exercise and sleep in terms of "brain power," both in my own ability to focus and in my mother's recent physical therapy rehabilitation, but some of the other "rules" may be culturally or context bound. Particularly the idea of "what is boring." Then again, like many girls when I was growing up, I always liked school but avoided most sports as "boring."

Similarly, it may seem astounding, but this conference I attended in France went for hours without breaks, with only talk and no visuals, and still the audience seemed ready and eager to ask questions and discuss.

It might be argued that there would be more brain activity with more breaks and a chance for people to, say, run around the block, but this certainly wouldn't be very French. It might also be argued that an extended time of focusing exclusively on an important topic and reflecting on it in depth also stimulates thinking.

I loved the frog, though. Great powerpoint host.

Steve Gershik

I've learned more from this post than I have all day in my office. Time to turn off the laptop, go outside and think! Thanks for the reminder!

By the way, another book I'd recommend is Richard Saul Wurman's "Information Anxiety," one of my favorite books from years ago. The design of the book itself is not to be missed.


Andrew Lightheart

Hi Garr

I just bought your book over the weekend and I must say I'm blown away by it. Having been active as a sworn enemy of PowerPoint for years, I'm loving having something to refer people to. I took the route of teaching people how to speak without slides, you took the route of getting people to use slideware consciously and appropriately as a simple thing of beauty. Two sides of a coin...

As soon as I've finished reading it (it's the first book in five years I've read with a pencil), I'm going to review it and recommend it to my subscribers.

This is the first post of yours that I've read, and I love how open you are, and up for really genuinely helping your clients.

Your generosity reminds me to be similarly generous with my knowledge and bookshelf!



great post. There is just one thing I would like to add.

Being visual helps you not only on your presentation.

Being visual greatly improves your own ability to internalize what you read (before you can create the presentation).

David S Rose

Great presentation there! (But be sure to remind your readers that, as always, you designed it for a very specific circumstance, which in this case is a blog reader sitting at his/her computer. Of course, that is NOT a presentation that you would use if you were there in person, because otherwise the audience would be reading all that text on the slide instead of listening to YOU.)

Which is the perfect place to point out that Dr. Medina's rule about our inability to multitask has an even more immediate relevance to presentations: the human brain is completely incapable of reading and processing text on the screen, while at the same time listening to and processing verbal information from a speaker. Therefore, for every word you put on the screen, your audience is [metaphorically speaking] putting their fingers in their ears and ignoring whatever you're saying. Which, of course, is the proximate cause of Death by Powerpoint!

Garr Reynolds

Typo ("lot's") on slide 104. Just going to leave it since I do not want to break the links...Argh...how did I miss that? :-(

the Weir

Hey Garr. This is still a great post, but I love the irony that there's lots of words in it..... ;->


Rather than looking at the individual letters of a word, other research suggests that readers look at the whole word. In fcat, the odrer of the lteetrs is not imnptroant as lnog as the frsit and lsat lteetrs are in the creocrt psoiiotn.

Theresa Zagnoli

Great post Garr. Definitely going to read the book! As a frequent speaker and someone who trains others to communicate more effectively, I am always looking new ideas .. thanks for sharing!

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Max Kalehoff

Hey, your blog rocks!

Harrison Wise

Garr, thanks. I'm new to your blog, Max Kalehoff pointed me in this direction and thankfully so. I've just purchased the book and hope to find in it the same experience you did. My only question is, your slideshow above is over 100 slides? it's good but no matter how visually appealing the 100 slides are it is probably also going to put your audience to sleep... curious what your feeling is on that? or will i find the answer in the book. My friend and marketing guru David Berkowitz, recently posted about a new presentation format called Pecha Kucha which originated in Tokyo. you can read more here: http://www.marketersstudio.com/2007/10/pecha-kucha---w.html the idea is 20 visually driven slides x 20 seconds of discussion for each slide. I've used and its interesting... thanks again for the book suggestion.

Zane Safrit

Wow. Great, great post. I'm putting together a pitchdeck. Your post, and the link from Max Kalehof on twitter, is perfect timing for my needs here.


Miles Fidelman

Except... I'm pretty sure that SMELL trumps all other senses.

Dan Berexa

As a trial lawyer, this is invaluable information. We constantly need to step back and think about how to present information in a manner that is attention grabbing and persuasive. The more we know about how the brain works, the more effective we can be. Thanks for all the work on your post Garr. I am heading out to buy Dr. Medina's book.

Dan Berexa

Ken Geis

Slide 28 says "Brian Rules." Is that an Easter Egg?


Wow, Garr! Absolutely awesome stuff! You basically sold me on both Brain Rules and your book, Presentation Zen! I've been lurking around your blog for a time now and I've found the knowledge you are giving us brilliant! Keep up the good work!


Dr. Medina is great - I love the idea to promote his book via youtube. And the self-irony of these short films. Especially the one on female/male brain. I hope the book is a good read, too. But, hum, yet another book. I buy one after every post of yours, I think.


are designed and programmed by PSP amateurs and enthusiasts. They may not have the glitzy graphics of commercial psp games, but they are free and pretty fun as well.

The PSP has been on the market for a few years now and is a http://pspgames247.com reat portable gaming device. You can download games for your PSP but sometimes you may find it difficult to search for games to download on your PSP.

Bay Area Lawyer

Excellent post. I heard a very similar story on NPR about how the brain works. I've put the book on my buy and read lists. I guess if we knew more about the rules of using our brain we would all do a lot better.



Cheap Bowling Balls

I t is amazing to me that so few people realize how important sleep is to their brain. I saw a show, a few months back, on the affects of sleep deprivation on the body. The study concluded that if you go with as few a 5 hours of sleep for 4 or 5 nights you will push your body into the early stages of diabetes. now i thought that was really scary. Thanks for the article. i am always learning how little I really kknow.


Jussi Laakkonen

I ordered Brain Rules immediately after viewing Garr's terrific presentation. The book was great and I loved how the book applied the lessons it was teaching (e.g. reviving attention every 10 minutes with a funny side story).

I was inspired by Garr's presentation to try something similar for another superb book: Yes! 50 scientifically proven ways to be persuasive (from Robert B. Cialdini, author of Influence: Science and Practice).

My little try is at Slideshare:

Cindy Seibel

I've begun using these techniques with great success (yes I'm burning my old ppt decks as I update them).

Could you do a favour though and delete Miss Happiness' comment from the SlideShare version of your BrainRules slides? You'll see the problem when you get there.

Many thanks!

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This deck is meant to be viewed online in about 10-12 minutes or less; it contains far more text than I would use in a talk.


nice post, can you send us the ppt file ?

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Wow, this sounds awesome. I will have to check out that book. I do presentations for my fairly small business operation from time to time, so I'm sure the pointers will come in handy!

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Excellent post and well-detailed information. Thanks!

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