Presenting information clearly and effectively is a key skill that nowadays is required almost in every field. Whether you are a student or business executive, start-up founder or academic grant applicant, a candidate for an elected position or sports event organizer, one day you will most likely be asked to prepare a presentation. How to make your presentation stand out and rise to the top?
Presentation success is based on three main concepts: content (structure and info delivery), visuals (slides and other supporting materials) and performance (public speaking and communication skills). These three components are inseparable: even the brightest idea will be lost if the presenter is mumbling and the best slides ever will never compensate for the lack of structure. Only mastering all three components together will create a truly great presentation.
This post is focused only on the first component – presentation content. It does not matter if we talk about a sales pitch, investor presentation or thesis defense – the ideas below can be easily used in any case.
1. Define the key message
First of all, decide on the key message – one big idea that you want to communicate to the audience. Key message (also known as takeaway or thesis statement) is exactly what you will leave your audience with when the presentation is over. It is something your listener will tell to his colleagues during a coffee break next day or something that a professor will have in mind when he sees your name in the long list of all participants of the conference. It is like a business card that you give to your audience that gives you an opportunity of a future contact.
- Do not confuse key message and topic
A topic is normally stated in a couple of words, while a key message is a complete sentence that has both a noun and a verb. Your key message should convey your unique perspective on this specific topic – the audience showed up to hear your view on the situation and your opinion and not someone’s else.
- Topic – “the fate of the oceans”; message “The population is killing the ocean and us”
- Topic – “IPhone introduction”, message – “Today Apple reinvents the phone”
- Topic – “Quarterly financial results”, message – “The growth in emerging markets has slowed down, which means that we need to deliver more to keep up with the plan”
- Tell what is at stake
It is always a good idea to include the feel of urgency in the key message. You should communicate what is at stake to articulate to the audience why they should care enough about your perspective right now.
- In several years the environmental problems caused by traditional sources of energy will exponentially increase, but Tesla batteries will save the world by making solar energy more accessible
- Without better relationship management with distributors, our company risks losing $ 2m revenue this year
- If we do not regain our competitive positions lost due to inefficient customer support this month, budget cuts are possible and jobs are in jeopardy
- Make it stick
You should repeat your key message several times over your presentation, so the audience will definitely remember it. Think about making your key message a headline of your presentation as Steve Jobs did for Apple introduction.
2. Focus on the listener
When you have defined your key message, let’s think about the audience. Every presentation is unique and it should be tailored specifically to your audience. Why? The answer is pretty simple – people you do not know are the most difficult to influence and the first one to get bored. As it is said, “designing the presentation without the audience in mind is like writing a love letter and addressing it to whom it may concern”.
Ïnvesting time into familiarizing yourself with the audience is very important not only to adjust the presentation content for their requirements and expectations but also to increase your ability to persuade and impact the audience. You need to figure out what your listeners care about, how they are connected to your topic and what level of knowledge they currently have. Get to know them as much as you can: their lifestyle, knowledge, motivation, influence, values – it will help you to adjust your content to fit the audience, so you would not bore everyone with technical details that they don’t understand or otherwise so you would not explain simple physics formulas and processes to highly knowledgeable professors.
If you have an opportunity, connect with your audience before the presentation to prepare the ground: build trust through some shared experiences or common goals, mention your presentation and some teasing facts to create interest and curiosity.
Sometimes your audience can be not easy to deal with: it can be very large and mixed. In this case, it is crucial to segment the audience and try to address requirements of each segment. If you want to learn more, I recommend you to check the analysis of President Reagan’s famous speech highlighting his fantastic ability to address interests of different audience segments in an online book Resonate by one of my favorite presentation experts Nancy Duarte Resonate.
3. Tell a story
Now we know the key message we want to deliver and to whom it will be delivered – we still have to decide on a very important thing – how our message is going to be delivered.
What does the listener want to hear? He wants to hear a story. Why? Everyone loves stories. They have been told for thousand of years and their concept is as urgent today as never before. When a great story is told, we lean forward and our heart rate accelerates as the story unfolds. Can the same power be leveraged for presentations? Yes, embedding storytelling element in your presentation can entertain, persuade and inform the audience. Once the presentation is put into a story form, it has structure, creates imbalance the audience wants to see resolved and identifies the clear gap the audience wants to be filled.
How do you actually build a story? Storytelling is an art. There are so many different methods that are used for creating stories: monomyth (hero’s journey from unknown to known), mountain (mapping the tension and drama), nested loops (layering several narratives within each other), sparklines (using contrast to show a difference and encourage a change), in medias res (starting from the middle of the story), converging ideas (how differents ways of thinking come together to form one idea), false start (starting with seemingly predictably story, unexpectedly disrupting it and starting over again) and petal structure (organizing multiple stories around one concept). If you are interested in more details, a very good summary is available here (1).
All these storytelling techniques can be definitely applied for presentations, however, people use “monomyth” and “sparklines” techniques most often. The main idea is to demonstrate a hero’s journey from unknown to known through contrasting that leads to a hero transformation.
Every story has a hero. Since in our case “the audience is a king“, it also should be a main hero in the story. However, be careful with a certain business presentation where nobody has canceled “the customer is a king” rule. Let’s say that your hero is in state X (doctor not being able to access electronic images of the patient from mobile phone / people not realizing the consequences of testing cosmetics on animals / a potential client looking for a new cloud storage provider).
Most audience members or so-called “heroes” are comfortable with the view from their own prospective. Therefore, they should come to your key message by themselves. For this purpose, it is necessary to have a plan – a definitive destination (usually closely related to the key message the audience will take with them in the end) and the journey (how the hero will get from one point to another). You are the one responsible for planning a hero journey (change from state X to state Y).
Coming back to the example above, state Y (doctor being able to access electronic images of the patient from mobile phone / people realizing the consequences of testing cosmetics on animals / a new client who found a new cloud storage provider).
While designing a story itself, you should always keep in mind the final destination at which you want your audience to arrive at the end to prevent listeners from reaching early conclusions that can decrease your credibility. Be prepared that initial reaction to the proposed change (or journey) is resistance (people are generally conservative and biased to loss aversion), therefore you need to address the resistance and risks so their fears will weaken.
4. Introduce the context/problem
Every good story has a villain – the problem that the hero is facing. Good presenters love to start with introducing a villain. By reminding people what is wrong and then revealing the path to a better way, they set up a conflict that needs to be resolved. That tension helps them persuade the audience to adopt a new mindset or behave differently — to move from what is to what could be.
The problem should be introduced as tangible as possible, so the audience almost could feel it. You should describe the problem to cause negative feelings and emotions of the audience. People should be nodding their heads in recognition because you’re articulating what they are already familiar with and what they hate to experience. This creates a bond between you and them, and opens them up to hear your ideas for change.
For example, Elon Musk starting his Tesla solar panel presentation with the images of environmental damages caused by traditional energy sources or a standard customer journey theme that is used to introduce the product: IPOD launch by Steve Jobs starting with the idea that carrying a CD player is very uncomfortable because it doesn’t even fit into our pockets.
Do not forget to make an accent on urgency and turning to the critical point – why people have lived hundreds of years without solving this problem and why they should take actions right now to solve it? Look how Elon Musk proves the urgency by showing relevant statistics on the environmental impact of using traditional energy sources and its exponential growth over last years that will make the transition inevitable for our survival.
However, sometimes starting with a problem is not an optimal solution because it could cause the defensive reaction of the audience and negative atmosphere when people are not open for dialogue. The solution is to start with context.
Every good story starts with changes, therefore identifying global trends changing the world relevant to your topic could be a good start to your presentation. It invites an audience to brainstorm on the possible effects and attracts its positive attention and an open mind. To elaborate your point you can show the trend in dynamics – how it was formed, how it is intensifying, why it is so urgent today.
Let’s take a look at the presentation of Zuora – a company providing software for a subscription – as an example: they start with introducing a big change – transition towards a subscription economy and support this trend evolvement with demonstrating changing business models throughout history.
5. Move to the solution
After introducing the context, you need to move to the solution. Start with leading to the consequences of the big change: in the end, there will be winners and losers, stakes are high and all winners will have common characteristics. People are biased by loss aversion and putting them in the possible position of a “loser” intensifies their need to take actions as a response to the change.
For example, Zuora shows that the transition towards a subscription economy will result in significant wins for some companies and significant losses for others. All winners have a common thread – they do operate through subscriptions.
Then show listeners the ideal picture of the world – let people believe in the dream and they will follow your logic. Indeed, the very best speeches succeed because they contrast our ordinary world (as is) with an ideal, improved world (to be). They compare what is with what could be. The presenter creates and fuels a desire for change in the audience. Normally the audience will think about your solution of how to get from point one to another even without you mentioning the solution itself.
Look how Elon Musk is introducing his ideal vision talking about the world 100% powered by the solar energy ..
.. or how Tien Tzuo (Zuora CEO) is talking about his ideal of a subscription economy.
5. Bridge the gap
Once you establish the gap between “as is” and “to be”, use the rest of your presentation to bridge it. Now that people in your audience realize that our world is off-balance, keep playing with the contrast between what is and what could be to introduce your main product/solution/idea.
However, be realistic – show that the transition is not easy and we need to overcome several obstacles to succeed. Use your main product/solution/idea to demonstrate a way to do it -prove that its qualities and characteristics will be able to solve existing issues.
For example, note how Elon Musk identifies several obstacles on the way to the transition from the world powered by traditional energy sources to the futuristic world fully powered by solar energy – large space required, quantity depending on change of day & night, inefficiency of current batteries – and tries to prove that new Tesla battery actually solves all these issues.
6. Support with data
Do not think that the audience will take everything you say for granted. You need to be able to prove everything you claim and support it with relevant data. However, being able to prove everything doesn’t mean including it all in your presentation. Be careful not to overload your presentation – you do not want your listeners to get lost in numerous graphs and charts, you just want them to trust you. Therefore, be highly selective with the data you share – it should be specific, contextual and relevant.
Coming back to our example, look how great Elon Musk demonstrates the amount of territory needed for panels storage to provide consistent solar energy to the entire USA ..
.. or how he shows the live results of the Powerpacks providing energy to the venue of his presentation (full video of the presentation 1)
Try to simplify data for understanding by using different methaphoras and analogies like in the examples below:
- when IBM launched its supercomputer, the speed of it was one petaflop per sec, however to present it to the audience they used the concept that the average user needs laptop 1,5 mile high to match the speed of the new supercomputer
- when Steve Jobs presented the IPOD, he was always referring to the big round number of 1000 songs the player could fit and not 5GB of storage and small size comparable to a pack of gum and not actual size parameters
The best evidence that your story is real – is probably a success story about how you’ve already helped someone else to reach the “TO BE” state. Zuora shows a set of customer success stories to prove their point (full deck 1)
7. Keep it simple and structured
“Simple can be harder than complex; you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple” (c) Steve Jobs
Simplicity is the key concept to keep in mind while working on your presentation. The main idea and supporting arguments should be crystally clear. Make sure that you are able to deliver it as a so-called elevator pitch (30sec – 1 min idea summary while sharing an elevator ride with your listener) or pass the “grandmother test” (explaining even the most difficult and technical idea to a person without any required background so that he/she could understand the main point).
Focus on your speech (it should be straight simple, without any jargon or buzzwords) and on your presentation structure (do no forget to apply the “rule of three” – grouping themes, subjects and sentences into the list of three points that is proved to be the most effective than lists of any other lengths).
Thanks for reading and I hope you found this post useful! Let me know what you think about the topic and what presentations you consider as the most successful from the perspective of content delivery and structure. Looking forward to working on new posts about two other key concepts of successful presentation – visuals and performance.
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