How to create a better presentation

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” – Albert Einstein

Presentations in the broadest sense are similar to art – there are an infinite number of ways to approach it and everyone has different opinions on what works best. This post is focused on a basic approach that will put you ahead of 95% of presentations. Once you feel comfortable with this approach, experiment to find your own voice.

The Basic Principle: Less is more. The best presentations are designed to engage the audience in a dialog, which requires minimal content. Go for simplicity and clarity over volume.

Before you start: Why are you creating a presentation?

Like telling a story, a presentation should always becreated for the purpose of influencing someone to behave differently as aresult. There are 4 main dimensions to consider:

  • Know: What will they know (and more specifically, retain) after your story
  • Feel: How will their feelings change?
  • Do: What will they actually do as a result of hearing your story?
  • What’s in it for them? (WIIFT): Think about your audience, their needs and what they will get out of it. Why would they agree to be influenced? The more you understand and respect your audience (they can tell), the more effective you will be.

Covering all 4 makes for a powerful story, but the 3rd (Do) is by far the most important in achieving your objectives. If you need more detail on how to do this, see the post on how to tell a better story.

Planning Content

Although you may have a specific time slot planned for your presentation, the reality is that things change, often at the last minute. Using the following structure will allow you to plan for multiple lengths simultaneously:

  • Executive Summary
  • 3-8 “Core” Content Slides (again, less is more)
  • Wrap-up / Next Steps Slide
  • Appendix (NOTE: Do not go through the appendix slides by slide. If you “must” go over it, it should be in core content)

You can then use the following approach depending on how much time you have:

Time Available Target Content
1 min or less Verbal  summary (the “elevator pitch” version)
5 min or less Executive summary slide
20 min or less Executive summary, plus your “core” content slides
More than 20 min Executive summary and core content while encouraging dialog and using the appendix slides provide more context for specific questions or points

Content Details

Verbal Summary

The “elevator pitch” version of the presentation is useful in many situations (the agenda ran out of time, you need to give someone a quick update, etc). You should be able to do this for any presentation you write. The goal is to answer these 3 questions inunder a minute:

  • “What”: What is the basic point or scenario that you are trying to convey?
  • “So What”: Why is that information important?
  • “Now What”: Who needs to do what, and more specifically, is there anything I (the recipient) need to do?

Executive Summary

Always include an executive summary slide that addresses at least the following points:

  • Why are you presenting? If there is a problem statement, clearly document it.
  • What is your desired outcome of the session?

Do not proceed with the presentation until you are convinced that everyone in the meeting understands why you are presenting and what you hope to achieve at the end.

Content Slides

Before you build actual slides, gather your key points and create a storyboard of how it will flow. This can be visual (small boxes) or simply a bullet list (again, see how to tell a better story for more specifics).

Designing the slides

Don’t assume that people will intuitively get your point. Every slide should have a summary statement somewhere (title bar, first bullet, bottom bar) that covers the point of the slide in 5 seconds. If it requires action from the audience (e.g. a decision or approval), write that on the slide.

Vary the visual style (text only, left block/right block, top/bottom, thirds, etc). Use your judgement. No variability (e.g all text bullets) is boring, too much is distracting. Pick 2-3.  When done, check the slides by asking a few simple questions:

  • If someone walks into the session late and glances at this slide quickly, is the purpose clear?
  • Does it just repeat a point on the executive summary page in more detail without adding more insight? If so, put it in the appendix (Warning sign: If you are giving a presentation and say “we’ve already covered this slide, so we can skip it”, it probably should have been appendix).
  • If you took it out, does it negatively impact the story? If not, take it out. If the answer is “maybe”, can you move it to the appendix? Remember, less is more.

Wrap-up /Next Steps

Include a slide that summarizes, in plain English, who must do what, by when, and how the results of those actions will be communicated.

Want to learn more?

Here are a few resources you can check out if you want to explore this idea further:

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