Nailing Your Presentation

The challenge of any presentation lies in the choices you will make of what to present and how. A presentation is always a stage with you as the main prop. If you bear this in mind you will then avoid the primary trap of producing detailed graphics and content that requires a lot of reading and concentration from your audience to get right.


Over the course of the year I give about fifty presentations, amounting to almost one a week. Some of these are to business groups, others are to corporate executives, VPs, organisations, non-profits and the odd self-help group. They are all interested in the same thing: how to make better use of their resources to maximize their visibility on the web (usually through search engine optimization) and how to use social media to optimize the way they work.

When you give that many presentations the novelty of the situation and the uniqueness of the participants fade away and something really interesting happens: the mechanics governing a successful presentation begin to emerge. Stripped of its trappings, fancy titles, marketing gimmicks and situational razzmatazz each presentation is then reduced down to its component parts: Me, the audience, the information I want to have them take away.

Notice that I did not say the information I want to give them. This is an important point because conceptually at each presentation I give what I would really like to do is President Barack Obama’s Jedi Mindmeld and have each participant leave feeling fully empowered, completely knowledgeable about SEO and social media crisis management, and ready to go and tackle whatever challenge they need to tackle in their working life.

President Obama's Jedi Mind Meld meme

Here’s what prevents me from achieving this:

  • Constraints on time – each presentation ranges from an hour to a maximum of three.
  • The setting – presentations range from workshops (my favorite) to keynote speeches (they may make me feel good but I really question their value).
  • The audience – Even when carefully vetted they are of different levels of experience, awareness and backgrounds.
  • The human brain – Lacking the option of a Jedi Mindmeld I am reduced to speech and slides on a PowerPoint.
  • Human Memory – In an hour-long presentation we remember, mostly, how it made us feel and at best the last three points. In a three-hour long presentation the challenge to remember grows exponentially.

How I tackle these issues borrows a leaf straight out of Homer (of The Odyssey fame, not The Simpsons). Faced with a crowd that was loud, drunk, probably paying only partial attention to his songs and lyrics and yet knowing that it was the same crowd upon whose opinion of the quality of his entertainment, rested his reputation and livelihood Homer used the storytelling tropes to craft a long narrative he could adjust on the fly, punctuated by key moments that remained with his guests.

Narrative is what we remember best. Facts and figures only serve to reinforce the validity of the narrative and the importance of the points it makes. From that approach I have perfected a formula that works every time:

Use headings that tell a story. If your headings do not tell a story (as opposed to simply presenting the next logical fact or figure in the sequence) your audience will not remember.

Keep points on the slides to a maximum of three. A presentation where the slides are full of text, data and writing that cannot be clearly made out even at the usually magnified level of a PowerPoint projector are a recipe for confusion.

Use large text in your headings. This also suggests that your headings work best when they are short. “Projected Profits” in large font is more memorable on a slide than “Future Growth Curve Forecast” even though the two say the exact same thing.

Be Flexible in your presentation. You are the one resource in your presentation that can be adjusted on the fly. Use that power wisely. Connect with your audience. Feel their energy and feed off it to broaden the scope of your slides.

Deliver value. Your role in the presentation is the only irreplaceable aspect of it. Anyone else with your slides is not the same thing. This is where you showcase what it is that makes you, you. Use your experience of facts and figures, elicit and answer audience questions (where appropriate), read audience interest and build upon it.

Finish on a high. If you’ve done your job right you have, by now, set the stage, taken your audience on a journey of discovery of something new. Let them know why it has been worth it. Finish on a note that is empowering and positive.

Follow these guidelines and I can guarantee you that not only will you not ever have to worry about presenting correctly but also those you present to will leave feeling that the experience has been worth their time.

If you need a tutorial watch Steve Job’s classic presentation of Apple at the 1998 announcement where he introduced the iMac. He’d been back on the job barely six months by then.

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