The science of persuasive public speaking


Published: 25Oct2018
Jay Olson

Jay Olson, a McGill PhD candidate in Psychiatry, makes public speaking look easy, but with some training and a few tips from neuroscience and psychology, anyone can improve their presentation skills.

Students packed the de Grandpré Communications Centre at The Neuro on Tuesday, October 23, for “The neuroscience of persuasion and effective public speaking”, a HBHL-SKILLSETS workshop led by Olson, who won McGill’s 2018 Three-Minute Thesis Competition.

The secret is practice. According to Olson, most of us spend 90 percent of our time fussing over the design of our slides and only 10 percent rehearsing our presentations. “This is the biggest mistake we make,” he said.

Olson’s presentation deck, composed of black, mostly blank, slides underscored one of his main messages: to be persuasive, you must keep your audience’s attention focused on you and your key message.

Scientific research offers some guidance on how to do this. Olson cited studies of first impressions using the “thin-slice” methodology, which revealed that an audience forms a relatively accurate opinion of a presenter’s confidence and competence in as little as two seconds (e.g. DePaulo, 1992). Knowing how an audience will judge macro-traits, such as posture, volume and eye contact makes practice critical, he said.

This workshop was the latest in the HBHL-SKILLSETS series. For information about upcoming training workshops, consult our events page, or subscribe to our newsletter: hbhl [at]