How to create an engaging and effective presentation

I used to think presentation decks were an afterthought. They’re meant to be an accompaniment to a speaker, I thought. Just pictures on a screen to give the eye something to rest on while the talker talks.

How wrong I have been. These things are hard to write.

They’re meant for visual aid, yes – but they also need to stand on their own. Each slide must balance the right amount of content – not so sparse that it looks half-finished, and not so cluttered that you can’t read it.

Decks need to tell a story, and engage the audience.

The pacing has to be just-so.

They need to be informative, and potentially persuasive depending on your desired outcome.

No matter whether you have three slides or 100, you need to think through what content is going on EVERY. SINGLE. ONE.

As this graphic suggest, your presentation’s success depends on the quality of your slide deck. This post offers tips for a better presentation slide deck.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned (somewhat painfully) about putting together clear and effective presentations.

Consider your storyline

First, what are you trying to say, or achieve? Start there and work backwards to create your presentation.

Make sure the content is in logical order. You might lean on a three-act structure to evoke emotion and persuade your audience to hook them in. Or, choose a top-down approach, where you lead with your strongest statement or big reveal. This is especially wise if you’re short on time or your audience has potential to check out after the first five minutes. (More on attention spans later.)

Dan Roam is best known as being the “back of the napkin guy.” He’s carved a career niche out of teaching people how to tell effective stories – with simple images. He also has a really great set of templates for determining your storyline. There are four possibilities, he says: a linear, straightforward report-type approach; a buildable story that gives more and more explanation as you go; an obstacle-infused/how-to-overcome pitch; or a sweeping, dramatic Hollywood-style story with dramatic lows and highs. (You can read more about it in his book Show and Tell.)

four storylines

Whatever you do, just don’t make your slides haphazard. We’ve all been there when people wing it in a meeting, and it’s obvious. Have a roadmap, and follow it.

Make it easy on them

There is another tip in an old adage:

  • Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em – this is your agenda
  • Tell ‘em – this is the meat of the presentation
  • Tell ’em what you told ‘em – this is your summary and conclusion

It’s simple, succinct, and something worth following as you structure your presentation.

Carefully consider your images

Images are an integral component of a presentation. Make sure the images complement your words. They should also be able to tell the story visually without words, if need be. Suppose you’re doing an online webinar, and the audience tunes the audio out to take a phone call? Or you’re standing at the TED Talk podium, and the sound fails. Will the pictures tell the story? That said, you don’t want the images to steal the show either.

But don’t forget your words

The text, images, and your voice should all be a nice foil for one another. Your words are super important – both what you state on the slide, and what you speak (from the notes).

Speak plainly. It sounds so obvious, but sometimes we forget. Your mantra should be less jargon, more humanity. Simple is not bad. Simple is clear and effective. Read more on the beauty of simplicity here.

Personally I like to write a script in the notes rather than just provide bullet points or snippets. Tactically, I do this in a word processing file first, before I create the presentation. Then I break apart the script and push it on to slides. Finally, to build the actual slide content, I take the key words (the headlines, the products, the stats) and put only those onto the slides. Remember that your words – the notes and the slides – also need to complement one another. Don’t be redundant; the audience should not be able to just read what you are saying off the slide, but make sure the key points are echoed. It’s a bit like a teeter-totter – not too much or too little on either side.

Consider your audience at the words stage, too. Your job is not only to distill what you want to say – but who you say it to. The answer to this question impacts the content – the vocabulary, the granularity – of your presentation. Who will hear (and watch) this presentation? Is it a C-level executive who you’re trying to convince to buy your services, for example? How is her language different from yours? Consider whether your audience might be open-eared and caffeinated, ready to listen for 40 minutes – or if you have 90 seconds to convey your points before they check out. I could talk for a long time about audience, and in fact I will in an upcoming blog – so more on this later.

Evaluate the overall harmony

Now it’s time to step back and evaluate your work thus far. Fly up to those proverbial 10,000 feet and get an aerial view. How’s it look from up there?

One thing to check is balance, like the way those images and words are working together. Take a gander at the overall structure and layout of your content, too. Is anything clunky or way too text-heavy? Maybe too sparse? Take note.

There’s a test I like to do at this stage: I peer at just the script and notes – sometimes from the thumbnail view – and assess if the story is complete. What If I just scan through the slides and read those, without hearing any accompanying speaker. Do I still understand?

Keep tabs on pacing

Now that the content is plotted and the 10,000-foot view taken, you can move to the finesse stage.

Walk through your presentation as though you’re giving it. You could have someone (perhaps your PR person) give you feedback. When does the audience start yawning, or checking their phone?

You definitely don’t want to lose your audience before you make your big point; you want to keep them hooked throughout the whole spiel.

As a tactic, try interspersing your presentation with built-in breaks, like pauses for questions. Or maybe weave in a demo video or some kind of anecdote every few slides. Some presenters do audience opinion surveys about a fact they are about to reveal. You don’t want to be too choppy, but you also don’t want to be a drone. Play around with it and see what works.

Offload the extras

Got too much content? Offload as much as you can so that the slides themselves are tidy and legible. (Maybe you have the beginning of a companion eBook with that extra content.)

You can put some of the text into the note fields. Your speaker can say a lot so your slides don’t need to.

And take advantage of the appendix. In book publishing, this is often referred to as “backmatter.” The pages at the end of the book give more context, such as citing the original source of material or inspiration, and providing non-fiction references. In business, this is the job of the presentation’s appendix. You can tack on your extra slides, additional examples, resources materials, ‘further reading,’ etc., here, too.

Just don’t cram it all into the main slides. Remember: no one wants to (or can) read data in five-point font.

Look to the experts

A note on the illustrations, design, and images: leave it to the professionals.

If you are a word person, chances are slim that you are also a picture person. (If you are, more power to you – this is a uniquely valuable skillset). But are you sure? Seek honest feedback from your peers. What do they really think about those clip-art inclusions? And your retro-cool animations – are they helpful or harmful? At minimum, have someone check your slides to ensure all the font styles, sizes, and colors really are consistent.

Better yet, employ an expert. A really good designer isn’t just someone who “makes it look pretty.” Sure, they should be an expert with the tool at hand (PowerPoint, Prezi, Keynote, etc.). But they should also understand what you are trying to achieve. Meet with them as early as possible – before you write the words. Have them sit in on a client meeting if possible, so they can learn more about the aesthetic and intended direction of the presentation. And listen as the designer gives tips on how to organize your content, visually, for effect.

Together, you can create a stronger presentation.

Prepare for catastrophe

Let’s talk about the actual presentation day.

Yes, beforehand, you should practice your speech. You should bring water so your mouth doesn’t get too dry while you’re talking. Get your i’s dotted and your t’s crossed and all your ducks in a row. (For more good tips, check out this post.)

But what if something happens that is worse than stumbling over your words? Imagine that you’ve designed a kickass presentation, it’s gorgeous and full of fun images and demos and charts. You worked for hours on it. You arrive in the conference room, and there’s no projector. Now what?

I recently saw this happen at a conference. A room of nearly 100 people waited as the speaker tried to figure out what to do. She pulled it off – doing a good job of talking through her slides even though we couldn’t see any of the pretty images. In this case, her words were enough. It maybe didn’t look as nice as she had hoped, but we got the message. She’d done her contingency planning, and you should too.

Presentations online versus at an event

Where are you giving your presentation? Is it online, such as for a webinar or live at an event or customer conversation? The basics are the same: you still need a nicely organized presentation with a clear objective, and you need to rehearse.

But a few things differ…

With online presentations, you have a limited amount of time to capture your audience. A recent New York Times article cited a staggering statistic: the human attention lasts a paltry eight seconds. Eight seconds! That is in person. Imagine how quickly you can lose your audience online – especially if they are multitasking. (And it is very likely that they are.) You’ve got to be both engaging and concise.

Consider how your presentation will play if they won’t even hear you speaking, too. For example, is this online rendition of your deck literally just a download – and thus needs to speak for itself? You’ve gotta capture them, or they’re out.

Also consider how or if your audience will engage with you during the presentation. I’ve attended online webinars that feature real-time chat – this is pretty common these days. You need someone (someone else, not yourself) to monitor the Q&A as you speak, or leave time to address questions at the end. An audience can ask questions or otherwise interject when you present in-person, too, but typically the pacing is different (see the previously mentioned suggestion of leaving space for Q&A in your slides).

How to scale

Your presentation is done. Great work! Now think about all the time you spent crafting it. You don’t want this to be a one-and-done, do you? Didn’t think so.

Now’s the time to put on your marketing hat and figure out how you can get the most bang out of the buck (and time) you just spent.

For instance, if you are giving your presentation online, record it (being sure you notify your audience that you’re doing so, of course), then make it available on-demand. This could be on your company’s video library site, or YouTube or Vimeo, for instance.

You can also take the audio portion and edit it down for a podcast.

Maybe you can take the transcript – or your speaker’s notes – and transcribe them into a blog (or three).

Also, you may as well spiff up the deck and put it on SlideShare. This site gets great amounts of eyeballs, via sharing and search. There are staggering stats, like the fact that businesses can see 500 percent more traffic on SlideShare than the big guns (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn). Learn more about SlideShare.

And by all means, you should use those snappy images to drive traffic via your social media channels.

For more on recycling content, read this post.

Take a bow

When it’s all done – the deck written, the images beautiful, the speech given, and the whole thing archived for future use, it’s time to take a bow and congratulate yourself for a job well done. Bravo!

Read more: Have You Given Your Presentation an X-Ray?