why appearances matter in presentations

Simon Raybould - presentations trainer

Appearances in presentations matter because of the Oppenheimer Effect.

I’ve known of the Oppenheimer Effect for years – partially as a social phenomenon and partially from personal experience. When I was a researcher I was the best there was at what I did. (Don’t get too excited about that: after over two decades as a researcher at a university I was the only one doing exactly what I did ? ).

Crudely put, the Oppenheimer Effect is the idea that people who show expertise in one field are assumed to have expertise in another. I was an expert in the application of heavily statistics-based GIS to the rare health events such as leukaemia… so it appeared obvious that I could be asked for expert opinion in applying GIS to anything with a similar pattern such as unemployment.

Presenting GIS information can sometimes be overwhelming

Well mayyyyyyyybeeee. Sometimes that assumption was justified, but only sometimes. Other times there was too much under-the-surface difference between the two things that no one noticed at first. The point was, however, that I was often taken prima facia as ‘the expert’.

So it is with presentations. Wait, what?

Consider the idea that you’re watching a presenter who can’t work the tech. He or she has to ask the audience how to get their laptop to talk to the projector. Their clicker doesn’t work. And when the slides finally appear they’re awful – twelve point type in Times New Roman fault… with a white-on-pale-pink colour scheme. (There’s a blog citing bad slides and delivery here – do you think anyone bought anything?)

Admit it, your heart just sank, didn’t it. (You just thought of the last time it happened to you.)

But here’s the kick in the teeth. Because of the Oppenheimer effect there’s a leak from the audience’s opinion of the presenter’s competence in the area of their substantive expertise. The bad presenter is more likely to be thought of as a bad accountant, a bad marketing expert, a bad whatever…

Presenters like this are more likely to be untrusted; more likely to be interrupted and questioned; and more likely to be ignored. (Once I’ve seen how bad you are as you set up and my phone is out, you’ve got almost no chance of getting me back.)

So how can presenters use the Oppenheimer Effect?

Some of this is obvious, right? Let’s start with those

  • Have decent slides – you don’t need to be as cool as pro-speakers like my mate Geoff Ramm! You just have not to sucky stuff on the screen!
  • Know the basics of working your tech – just enough not to have to ask your audience to help you at the very least. If you can, I arrive so far in advance of the audience that even if everything goes wrong, you can sort it out before they get there! (Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me!)
  • Look the part. I know it might not be cool to wear a tie (or equivalent) and you should take this idea and modify it depending on you and your circumstances. Yes, I’m sure you’ve seen great presentations given by scruffy slobs. But they’re the exception not the rule. I’m not saying you need to be dressed in a three piece suite or equivalent but I am saying that it should look smart for you/your audience. Ask yourself whatever looks good in your circumstances, and do that.

I told you some things were pretty simple and obvious. Let’s move on to more advanced stuff.

morph transitions can make your presentations look very cool
  • Don’t just have “basically okay” slides – spend time on them to make the sliiiiiiick. For example, while I’m not advocating animation for the sake of animation on a slide, a thoughtful, clever transition between two slides shows a technical competence. (For example, in Keynote, consider using Magic Move, and now that PowerPoint has caught up to that trick, the new Morph transition makes you look a bit cooler)
  • Think long and hard about taking time to rehearse your tech as well as your delivery (you do practice, don’t you??!?!?). Now you’ve thought about it, do it!
  • Consider using something impactful before the presentation starts – as your audience comes in. Typically, presenters have the traditional (rubbish!) splash screen with the title and your name… but why not use that for something to give more use and more flash. An animation? An instructional video playing?
  • Consider pre-circulating something that is simple but which your audience might find very useful to know before you start. I’ve seen a glossary used very well, for example. Just knowing half a dozen terms and definitions before starting a presentation can be a great time-saver and (importantly!) gets audiences to think you’re going to give them something useful.. and it looks cool.
  • Make sure your handouts are on good quality paper stock and in colour. Why? Because it looks cool. (Oh, and because people learn better if their props are classy; the research is pretty clear!)

I know it’s old-school now, but even using Prezi can have that impact if your audience haven’t seen it before! (By the way, if you follow that link, don’t get carried away with their claim that university research proves Prezi is better: it’s a bit of a …. well… erm… stretching of the research in some ways.)

I’m no expert in the dark art of Prezi (see here for some reasons) but here’s an example – cool if you’ve never seen it before.


The point is – you need to look coooooool.

Now what?

All I’ve done here is given a few examples. Take it and run! 🙂 I’d be fascinated to know what added extra stuff you do to take advantage of the Oppenheimer Effect, rather than get clobbered by it?

Post Script – and a personal confession

There’s a point where you can take this too far. I did.

Because I do presentation skills training it was really important to me (‘cos of the Oppenheimer Effect) that are Youtube videos (for example) were absolutely slick and professional. And because I couldn’t afford that either in time or money, we ended up not doing any videos at all… which is arguably the most unhelpful outcome of them all! 🙂


  1. This is fascinating. I’d not actually heard of the Oppenheimer Effect, but it makes sense.

    And I can absolutely relate to your story about not doing YouTube videos for a while. It could be what’s putting the brakes on me developing an online course…

    Now I have an excuse for my fear of making mistakes – even typos!

    I’m intrigued by your mention of using video before a talk. Would love to learn more about that, if you’ve any links (or are looking for ideas for a future post).

    One slick-looking technique I’ve used is to turn the screen black at times, but NOT return to the same slide when you come back from black. (Click my name on this comment to go to the relevant post.)

    • Simon Raybould

      Hi Craig. Thanks for your comment.

      Two bits of response 🙂

      1/ the videos I use are either general advice tips from my YouTube channel (the animation ones by smallSimon) or a set of (really quite complicated) slides I’ve saved as a movie that have tips etc, customised for the audience by including their logo and so on. I embed that into a set of slides before my splash screen and it works a treat.

      2/ I use the jumping around trick from black to black too – love it in questions particularly. From the audience’s perspective I’ve jumped to a slide that answers their question, in order, because they don’t see me jumping over the 2305 other questions I’ve prepared slides in answer to! :)(

  2. BTW, do you have a link for info about the Oppenheimer Effect? I thought of mentioning it in an upcoming post. (Had tried Googling it, but just found stuff about medical implants causing cancer.)

  3. Simon

    I do – somewhere, hidden deep inside the mess of my notes in Evernote. I’m not at work at the moment (for the obvious Christmas reason!) 🙂

    From memory, I first came across it in a podcast (possibly You Are Not So Smart) so if you’ve got time, you could start there. In the meantime, I’ll look when I’m back at work and drop you a line.

  4. Thanks Simon. (Tried searching YANSS, but drew a blank again.)

  5. FYI, I’m just about to publish that post I mentioned, but for the moment have removed mention of Oppenheimer and the link to this post.

    • Simon says...

      That’s fair enough and sorry I got side tracked. I’ve just had a bit of a quick search between clients and meetings and I appear to have buggered up my Evernote stuff when I put myself forward as a beta tester for Evernote Preview (my problem, not yours! 😉 )

      That said, I’ve just seen this (https://science.sciencemag.org/content/sci/155/3766/local/ed-board.pdf) and I can quite see why the term was forged, when you read all the different stuff he did! I’ll see if anyone I know can remember the original reference.

  6. Pingback:Keeping audience attention in presentations – Make Better Presentations

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *