#24 How to Give a
Memorable Presentation

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Presenter's-eye-view of microphone with audience in the background

Once upon a time, I was terrified of public speaking.

As an introverted poet, the very thought of having to stand up in front of a crowded room and talk without a script filled me with dread.

Don’t worry if you feel the same way, it’s quite normal. According to surveys, public speaking consistently comes out as one of our biggest fears – up there with heights, snakes, spiders and being buried alive.

And yet whatever your career path, presentation skills are critical to your success. Even if you’re not a professional performer, sooner or later you’ll have to give a presentation to an audience in order to reach your goals. At that point, your chances of success will be a lot higher if you know you can deliver an exceptional performance.

In my own case, there’s no way I’d have been able to build the business I have today without becoming a confident and capable presenter. Not only do I deliver training workshops, but I’ve also had to make many presentations in order to land contracts and projects.

These days, presenting is one of my absolute favourite parts of my job. I’m in demand as a trainer and presenter, and regularly get rave reviews from my audiences.

I’m not saying that to boast, just to show you that if an introvert like me can do it, so can you. This lesson will show you how.

The Death of Death by PowerPoint

Most business presentations are stuck in the dark ages.

When was the last time you actually looked forward to a presentation at work, or felt captivated by what the speaker was saying?

‘Death by PowerPoint’ is so common it’s become a cliche, conjuring up images of endless slides full of bullet points in a font too small to read – so the presenter spends eternity 30 minutes with his head craned backwards over his shoulder, reading the text to the audience in a monotone.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

And would you believe me if I told you PowerPoint can be a higly creative medium to work in? Or that these days, I look forward using PowerPoint (or Keynote on my Mac) whenever I have a new presentation to put together?

How would you like to not only overcome any nervousness about presenting, but to enjoy using PowerPoint as an expression of your creativity — and an opportunity to wow your audience?

That’s what this week’s lesson is all about.

1. Get Your Thoughts in Order

Slide showing three hands with fingers held up to mark three key points of the presentation

The best way to plan a presentation is to start at the end and work your way backwards. Why? Because as Seth Godin points out, the purpose of a presentation is to persuade – to win the audience’s hearts and minds, and to get them to do something different (or at the very least think differently) as a result of hearing you speak. Otherwise, you might just as well email the information round and save everyone a lot of trouble.

So start at the end, and ask yourself:

What do I want people to do?

The answer to this question gives you your call to action.

Next, ask yourself:

What three things do the audience need to understand before they can take the desired action?

The answer to this gives you your three key points.

Three key points + call to action = the structure of your presentation

Why only three? Because, as the neuroscientists tell us, and experience confirms, human beings can only hold about three or four chunks of information in conscious attention at any one time. So use four points if you really have to, but no more than that – otherwise you’ll overload the audience and their attention will wander.

But if you have three key points, which you outline at the beginning, explain in the middle, and recap at the end, your audience will find it easy to pay attention – and remember your talk afterwards. You can help them by creating a slide that shows the three points graphically (see above), and showing it repeatedly, to ‘bookmark’ your place throughout the presentation.

Another benefit of using this structure is that it helps you remember the entire presentation – once you have your three key points and your call to action firmly in your mind, you can give the presentation from memory, even if the projector breaks and all your notes are eaten by the dog.

For a (very) detailed guide to structuring your presentations, see Cliff Atkinson’s book Beyond Bullet Points.

And don’t forget the call to action at the end – finish by telling people what you want them to do, and how they can do it.

2. Tell a Story that Matters

Open book with pages turning into white birds

Stories are powerful tools for persuasion because they engage people at the emotional level – as soon as you start to tell a story, they drop their guard a little and go into the ‘storytime trance’ they remember from childhood (I’m a trained hypnotist, trust me on this ;-)).

So once you have your key points + call to action, ask yourself:

Who does this remind me of?
What problems did they face?
How did they solve them?
What was their story?

If you’re not sure whether you can tell a convincing story, remember the last time you were out with friends and somebody started telling a story that reminded you of something that had happened to you recently — you couldn’t wait for the other story to finish, so that you could start telling yours, right?

And when you told it, you were so full of how funny/scary/shocking/exciting it was, the words came tripping off your tongue. And when your friends laughed/winced/ sucked in their breath in the right places, you knew the story had hit home.

If you can do it with your friends, you can do it with an audience. Start to notice what it’s like when you get that itch to tell a story — that’s the feeling you want to recapture when you get up on stage.

The most important thing is that the story will be meaningful and relevant to your specific audience. If it’s a business presentation and you want to make the link between the story and your proposed action crystal clear, use an an anecdote that they – or their customers – can relate to from direct experience.

If you think they are thinking too narrowly and need to broaden their horizons, use a more exotic story – from a movie, a novel, the news, or even an ancient myth or legend. If you do this, they may be more easily entranced – but it’s very important that you make a strong link between the lesson of the story and the main subject of your presentation.

3. Forget Confidence, Go for Enthusiasm


Image by ForsterFoto

Every single person I’ve coached on presentation skills has asked me to help them be more confident. I usually tell them to forget confidence – and tap into their enthusiasm for the subject.

You can be very confident and still be a poor presenter. We’ve all seen public speakers who were supremely confident – but a little dull, or even intimidating. But when someone is enthusiastic about their subject, it’s hard not to feel the same, even if it’s a subject we know little about – our mirror neurons mean we pick up on the emotions of other people, and this is particularly true of listening to a presenter.

So before you go on stage, ask yourself:

Why do I care about this?
Why should it matter to the audience?
What’s the most important thing for them to understand?

Once you tap into your enthusiasm for the subject, you’ll lose your self-consciousness and find yourself talking easily, fluently and passionately. You’ll also be focused on the audience more than you – to see if they’ve ‘got it’ yet. Which will make you even more engaging.

And once you’ve had a taste of connecting with an audience like that, you’ll want to experience it again. You may even find yourself looking forward to delivering your next presentation…

4. No More than Six Words Per Slide

Statue holding a finger to its lips.

If you use this approach, you may not even need slides for your presentation, so think carefully about what, if anything, they will add to your performance.

If you do use slides, here’s a radical approach to slide design that will instantly differentiate you from the vast majority of presenters – and let your audience know they’re in for something special from you.

What not to do:

I’m serious. This stuff is useless clutter that obscures your message. Get rid of it. I know ‘everybody’ has these things on their slides, but you are not everybody – your goal is to be an outstanding presenter.

Here’s what to do instead:

  • One powerful image per slide
  • Make sure photos or graphics fill the slide, with no borders
  • Make charts crystal clear – illustrate ONE key metric, not every tiny bit of data
  • Use few words (if any) in a BIG FONT

Here’s an example of a slide I created several years ago:

Slide with text about intrinsic motivation in a boring font.

I trust that makes it clear I’m not a graphic designer. 🙂

And here’s the revised version of the slide I use these days:

Photo of Iggy Pop on stage.

Photo by aleksey.const

This version isn’t perfect, and I’m sure you can do better if you’re a designer. But there’s no question which slide will have a bigger impact on an audience.

For great advice on designing simple and attractive slides, read Garr Reynold’s presentation skills blog and his book Presentation Zen.

Presenters often use text and bullets as a ‘crutch’, to help them remember their points. But don’t worry about that – using powerful images will help you remember not just the ideas but the emotions that you associate with them. And if you rehearse beforehand and use the ‘three main point’ structure, you will find it easy to remember your presentation.

Some presenters fill their slides with text because they know the slides will be printed out for their audience, so they want to make sure they will make a useful reference. But as Garr Reynolds points out, the resulting ‘slidument’ gives you the worst of both worlds – slides that make a poor visual impact, and a printout that isn’t as easy to read as a Word document.

The solution? Create the best slides you can for the presentation, and produce a separate written/illustrated summary for the audience to take home. Yes, it’s more work, but becoming outstanding usually involves more work. 🙂

Where to Find Images You Can Legally Use

You’ll recall from Lesson 17 how important it is to respect intellectual property when sourcing images.

iStockphoto.com is a website where you can license high-quality images for a few dollars/pounds each. I use iStockphoto a lot — it offers a wide range of clean and clear images of just about anything you can imagine.

My only criticism of iStockphoto is that the images can be a bit corporate and antiseptic — if you want something a little edgier (and free) then read Skellie’s fantastic tutorial on using Creative Commons images from Flickr: A Complete Guide to Finding and Using Incredible Flickr Images.

Once you’ve got the hang of using Flickr images, I recommend Compfight, an excellent way to search for Creative Commons-licensed images.


Icon - GlobeWritten by me, unless otherwise stated

I occasionally run a public presentation skills training workshop: Creative Presentation Skills, in London. If you’re in the area and would like to know the next time I run the workshop, you can join my mailing list here.

Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. If you only buy one book on presentation skills, this is the one. Excellent on simplicity, storytelling and slide design. For more advice from Garr, check out the presentation tips section of his website and subscribe to his Presentation Zen blog.

A few classic articles from Presentation Zen: What is good PowerPoint design?; Don’t make a speech – put on a show; and a selection of great TED presentations.

TED Presentations – watch lots of these videos. The presentations are invariably great, and you’ll become a better presenter by absorbing them.

Really Bad PowerPoint by Seth Godin. (Free pdf download.) Written in 2002, sadly still relevant.

Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson. Excellent advice on structuring presentations for maximum effect. The book is a lot longer and wordier than it needs to be (presumably because it’s a Microsoft book, and had to fit into their usual format). So you probably won’t read it from cover to cover, but the ideas are pure gold. More resources on Atkinson’s BPP blog.

slide:ology by Nancy Duarte. It was Duarte and her team who created the slides for Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth presentation that formed the basis of the movie. In-depth advice on creating beautiful and memorable slides. Some of it’s too advanced for non-designers like me, but well worth getting once you’ve got a grasp on the principles from Presentation Zen. More from Duarte on her presentation blog.

The 10 Commandments of Suck-free Speaking by Jonathan Fields

Speaking about Presenting – Olivia Mitchell’s website, plenty of great advice and resources on presentation skills.

PowerPoint as a Toy for Thought by Russell Davies.

How to Present Your Work and How to Present Your Work to the Team by Simon Veksner. Forthright advice for creatives from a creative director.

Tune in Next Time …

… When we’ll look at what to do if you’re ever tasked with managing a creative team.

About The 21st Century Creative

Mark McGuinnessThis lesson is part of The 21st Century Creative Foundation Course, an in-depth free course about how to succeed as a creative professional. If you landed on this page from elsewhere, you can learn more about the course and sign up here.

The 21st Century Creative is taught by Mark McGuinnesspoet, creative coach, and the author of Productivity for Creative People Motivation for Creative People and Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success.