Compelling Presentations: A Step by Step Guide

In the book, Adams Presentations: Proven Techniques for Creating Presentations that Get Results by author Daria Price Bowman, which I published, Bowman offers further classic advice for getting your presentation message across.

She states that while you’ve probably heard the following three simplistic sentences before, they nonetheless offer great advice:

  1. Tell your audience what you’re going to tell them.
  2. Tell them.
  3. Then tell them what you’ve told them.

Adhering to this little bromide – which is really a streamlined version of Aristotle’s ideas on giving speeches – will keep you on track as you prepare your presentation. And it will make your audience comfortable and secure because they’ll know where you’re headed.

The Opener

The first few words you utter will set the tone for your entire presentation. This is the part where you “tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em.” So it’s imperative that you say something that will capture your audience’s attention and help establish a rapport.

There are a number of ways to begin your presentation. You might start simply with a greeting: “Good morning. Thank you for inviting me to spend a few minutes with you today to discuss how we might work together to improve the quality of life for our less fortunate neighbors.”

Then there’s the shocker: “Thousands of teenagers die from drug overdoses every year. And this year, your child might be one of them.”

You might introduce a little humor, but not of the “Did you hear the one about the priest, the minister, and the rabbi . . .” variety. Humor is, by far, the most difficult method to use to open your talk. Only use it when you are absolutely sure that it’s appropriate, that your delivery is impeccable, and that it’s actually funny.

Or, instead of humor, you might choose a warm and friendly approach that could include an anecdote that lets your audience see you as human and credible. For example. “My mother was fond of clichés and she used them liberally. `A stitch in time saves nine.’ `Moss never grows on a rolling stone.’ `A watched pot never boils.’ She always had a cliché ready to help her family deal with life’s situations. One of Mom’s favorites was `Never a borrower nor a lender be.’ Our organization needs to heed my mother’s advice, ladies and gentlemen. I’m here this morning to tell you that under no circumstances are we in a position to borrow funds to support our campaign.”

In this approach, the speaker has taken his mother’s homespun advice and injected his personality, a little bit of himself, into the presentation. And because we all have mothers, most of whom were capable of giving us reasonable advice at least some of the time, he has made himself one of the group.

If you are good with words, you could create some verbal imagery, that is, paint a picture with words so that your audience can see, not just hear, what it is you are saying. This takes considerable skill, but if it’s something you can do, it’s extraordinarily effective.

Other formats for opening your presentation can include:

  • An appropriate quote
  • A short list of facts or figures
  • A question
  • A challenge or call to action

Whatever device you use to open your presentation, just be sure to also quickly “tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em” and set them on a positive path to listening intently to the whole presentation.

Chunk the Middle

The middle part, often called the body of the speech, is where you actually “tell ’em.” This is where you get your message across, where you cover your key points, and where you “chunk” the bulk of your message.

In general, there are five different strategies for building presentations:

  1. Make a chronological progression from past to present to future.
  2. Define the symptoms of a problem, identify the causes, and suggest or demonstrate a solution.
  3. Explain the symptoms of the problem. Go through possible solutions. Then show how they don’t work. Finally, give a solution that will work.
  4. List all the pros of an idea, plan, or product. Then go through the cons, showing how they are outweighed by the pros.
  5. Organize your presentation around three aspects of the subject. (See the following section entitled “Speaking in Threes.”)

Informative presentations often include one or more of the following self-explanatory organizational elements:

  • Chronology
  • Cause and effect
  • Classification
  • Description
  • Narration
  • Problem/solution
  • Geographic
  • Illustration by example
  • Process
  • Compare and contrast

You can choose one or two of these elements and organize your message within that context. Entertaining presentations use many, if not all, of the same elements that informative presentations do.

You can choose to organize the presentation based on what you want to accomplish. In the case of a persuasive presentation you can either define the problem, offer solutions, and identify the best solution or make a proposal (state your thesis), build supporting arguments, create acceptance, and ask for action if appropriate.

Another approach to the persuasive argument, which is the most difficult form of presentation, is to tie it to motivating your audience.

To motivate an audience, presenters frequently follow a five-step process:

  1. Grab the audience’s attention with your opener.
  2. Establish and build their need or interest in your product, idea, or proposal.
  3. Show them that your plan, idea, or proposal will meet their needs.
  4. Help the audience visualize themselves, through descriptive language or with visuals, using your product, idea, or proposal to meet their needs.
  5. Encourage the audience to take the action you suggest.

Speaking in Threes

It is widely believed that most people are not capable of retaining more than seven key points at one time. That’s why individual phone numbers are limited to seven digits. But even seven is a lot. Unless your audience is already well versed in your subject or highly motivated to hear what you have to say, it’s probably best to limit your key points to three.

For some reason, the use of three points, examples, words, or ideas is more memorable than if you use just two or if you use four or more. It may have something to do with the sound or the rhythm of a series of three: healthy, wealthy, and wise; morning, noon, and night; gold, frankincense, and myrrh; bell, book, and candle. You can probably add dozens to the list.

The Close

Finally, you’re at the end of your presentation. What do you say next? “Well, I guess that’s it,” is not one of the choices. There are presenters who actually do finish that way. No matter how eloquent you are for the opening and middle, if your close is a clunker, that’s what the audience will remember.

So go back to your purpose. What was your goal? If it was to inform, find out if you have given the audience the information they need. This is the time to “tell ’em what you told ’em.” You can accomplish this by saying, “I hope you now have a better understanding of what the marketing department has done to increase our market share in the 65-and-over bracket. Is there anything you’d like me to clarify?”

If your presentation was designed to build goodwill and entertain, there may be no need to repeat your message or answer questions. Instead, you might just thank your audience and say good-bye: “Thank you for sharing your evening with me. I enjoyed our time together.”

It’s often appropriate to thank your host and the audience: “I’d like to thank Ms. Hooper for inviting me to speak with you this afternoon, and to thank you all for making my visit so comfortable.” It may even be appropriate to steal late comedian Red Skelton’s famous “Good night and may God bless” closing

When your presentation is of the persuasive variety, your closing is a little more important. You may want the audience to take action, to accept your message, to buy your product, or to change their minds. In your closing remarks, you can do the following:

  • Summarize your message.
  • Repeat your key points.
  • Ask for an action.
  • Recreate the verbal imagery you used in your opener, but with the addition of your solution.
  • End with another anecdote (if you began with one), but this time with a play on the words or some kind of memorable twist.
  • End on a positive note, even when your message is a difficult one.

Takeaways You Can Use

  • Your first words set the tone for your entire presentation.
  • Cover your main points in the middle.
  • Speak in threes.

Presentation Basics Made Simple

About Bob Adams

Bob Adams is a Harvard MBA serial entrepreneur. He has started over a dozen businesses including one that he launched with $1500 and sold for $40 million. He has written 17 books and created 52 online courses for entrepreneurs. Bob also founded BusinessTown, the go-to learning platform for starting and running a business.