No amount of flash graphics and high-tech software can compensate for a presentation that is unstructured and hard to follow. Remember your first duty: to keep your audience awake.
I attended a conference recently where I was reminded of the now obsolete Kodak law of slide-projector presentation: “If a slide can be inserted into a carousel upside down and back to front, it will be.”

In this small (30-delegate) gathering, most speakers supported their presentation with PowerPoint-driven visuals. Sitting at the back of the room with my near-perfect (albeit contact lens-assisted) vision, three-quarters of these visuals came and went and I could read nothing. Most speakers had a problem controlling the sequence and flow of the “slides” and much time was wasted between agenda items while laptops and projectors were connected and disconnected, keyboards and disks were played with and audience concentration melted away.

To date, I haven’t seen one presentation that was made more effective by the use of PowerPoint visuals; I have seen plenty that have been made a sight worse. In each case, the speaker failed to attend to a key principle of communication: think of the audience.

What does the audience want?

Whether selling a business idea internally or externally, pitching to win a contract or speaking to a local business group and even when succumbing to the temptation of speaking from an after-dinner platform, our guiding thoughts should surely be:

  • Why is this audience here?

  • What do they want from me?

  • What do they need from me?

  • How do I want them to react?

  • How do I want them to act?

Without answers to at least some of these questions, your preparation will be wasted and your presentation will be pointless.

The subject of most presentations or speeches is usually clear, but the object or objective is often obscure. And the audience inwardly groans as it sits back to receive yet another offering from the “let me tell you about our company/latest project” school of presentation.

Start your preparation by thinking about how you can help the audience. They have a job to do, too. They must stay awake, follow the argument, and act or react in the required way. Your job, as speaker, will be to guide and motivate them to do their job.

Never, never, never start with a “thank you”; never start with an apology; never start with “the subject of my presentation is …”

If you’re not clear about the objective of your own presentation, how can they be? Write it down, in one sentence if you can. Edit that sentence, cut out the padding and write it again. That done, you can plan the presentation.

How to build a sound structure

Structure your presentation so that it will help the audience to follow the argument; a structure that will help the audience to “buy”. And begin by preparing your ending. We have all sat through the presentation that ends with a whimper, not a bang; the presentation that suddenly dries as the speaker concludes with “er, that’s it then”.

Plan and rehearse an uplifting conclusion, a call to action, the way forward. Whatever your objective, make sure the audience knows what it has to do next — whether to award you the contract or move swiftly to the bar.

Armed with an objective and a conclusion, you can now build a clear and simple structure that will give the audience a thread to follow. Always start with their needs (whether understood or reasonably inferred), moving on to demonstrate your response to each requirement and showing clearly why it will be beneficial. If this sounds too formal, too much the sales pitch, at least make it clear that there is a beginning, a middle and an end.

Talking of the beginning, the audience will never reach your well-crafted conclusion without a well-crafted opening. Give them a reason to listen, grab their attention — tell a relevant but concise story, use a startling statistic and point the way forward. But never, never, never start with a “thank you”; never start with an apology; never start with “the subject of my presentation is …”

With the structure established, you need to consider how to make it easy for the audience to follow. Remember, they cannot read an executive summary; they cannot turn to the end and read your conclusion, count the pages or number the section heading. They have none of the assistance inherent in the written document. So help them with clear “signposts” and transitions; tell them where and how you are taking them forward. Avoid the pedestrian repetition of “my next point is … my next point is …” Add a little drama; pause, use rhetorical questions, open and end each section with a new and interesting transition.

The architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe wrote: “The spirit of the thing lives in the detail.” If it is true of a building, it is true of your presentation. The motivating presentation needs not only a clear structure but also the detail of your delivery. It is your delivery that will convey belief, conviction and interest. These qualities depend on your vocal delivery — not the technical sophistication of what you can project on to a screen.

It’s all in the delivery

Your vocal delivery has three variables: stress, speed and volume. Stress guides an audience through your subclauses, sentences and paragraphs, but you can also use it to create surprise. Watch any CNN broadcast to hear how not to do it. Reduce speed to build anticipation and to emphasise a point; pause to add drama. Use volume in the same way. Remember, the more effective a speaker you are, the more you will use the variables of voice to capture and hold interest and to add drama – not for its own sake but as the detail that supports the argument.

Which brings us back to visual aids. If our thinking starts with the visuals (whatever the delivery system), they will become a crutch, exposing laziness and failure to prepare as you drone endlessly on, moving from bullet point to bullet point, unexplained, without expression and forgetting that the audience could read them more quickly for themselves.