You either give a great presentation, or one that’s bad. Anything in between that, from fine to ‘meh’ is a dangerous gray area in which your audience doesn’t take the desired action you had in mind after your last slide.
So, how do you get to great? It’s less about what you have to offer or say, and more about how you do that. It’s a delicate mix of design, storytelling, structure and using the right words. It’s about finding the connection with your audience, and using that.
But you probably already knew that. You’ll probably go insane if one more person tells you to ‘’just use storytelling’’. Don’t worry, this article won’t do that.
I’ll walk you through some tips from real experts, who made it to big stages like Ted, where they gave great presentations about giving better presentations.
We’ll divide the tips into two sections: four tips on your message, and three tips on the tangible part of your presentation—the design of your slides. Take a cup of tea and let’s get started.
1. Tailor your presentation to your audience
Fairy tales are a way to teach children about important values in life. Imagine if we’d do that without Robin Hood, and instead just gave them a copy of Economics for the Rest of Us by Moshe Adler?
One of the biggest traps you can fall into when preparing a presentation, is by starting to think about what you will say. Hold up, stop right there. First of all, you’ll want to have very clear who you will be talking to.
With that information, you can start shaping your message to make it really resonate with your audience.
According to Phil Waknell in his TedTalk ‘The 3 Magic Ingredients of Amazing Presentations’, you always need to tailor your talk to your audience and the context they find themselves in.
Because even business presentations are all about people.
As yourself: why would they care about what you’re about to say? Then say it in a way that makes them care.
2. Tailor your presentation to fit you
Your talk or presentation shouldn’t just be a great fit for your audience. Many speakers look at other people for inspiration and try to steal their presentation tricks, but that’s missing the point.
Instead, double down on your own strengths. What is your specific connection to your message? Why do you care so much? Making your audience understand this can make your message all the more powerful.
With that in mind, you should also adapt the way you deliver the presentation. You’re a person with quirks, and you know how you feel most comfortable on stage. Instead of very obviously stepping out of your comfort zone, find the tools within your own safe space and use them as well as you can. It takes away the awkwardness of trying too hard.
3. Don’t just give information, give directions
In the end, you want people to do something after your presentation. According to Phil, you do that by not just informing them, but by transforming them. You don’t just want to change what they know, but also what they feel and believe—and eventually, do.
Easier said than done, right? This is where the storytelling part is crucial and where emotion should come into the picture.
Stories are 22 times more memorable than dry facts. Being vulnerable, honest, and open isn’t a sign of weakness in your presentations. Just as using humor isn’t a sign that you’re not being serious.
Depending on the topic and goal of your presentation, use at least one of them. Both is even better. Use anecdotes to make examples stronger or weave a story throughout the whole presentation.
Take Gary Vaynerchuk as an exceptional example for this. Whenever Gary gives presentations about entrepreneurship, he doesn’t just share the lessons he’s learned.
He is incredibly open on how he got to learn those lessons in the first place: by being the kid of an immigrant family, working in his dad’s liquor store. He turned it into a successful business, but didn’t get the financial gain from that which you’d might expect.
Is there some resentment there? Sure, he won’t shy away from that. You might thinkL ‘’how is this relevant? Just cut to the chase and tell us how to get rich, stat.’’ But he won’t.
Because this vulnerability is so important to the lessons, and he makes it easier for you to relate to him and think—if he could do this, then I can too.
So, when the moment comes to tell people about your call to action, they’ll be relating to you and are able to place the topic you talked about in their own lives, or themselves in it.
This has everything to do with something called neural coupling, something that happens when you’re listening to someone telling a story.
Basically, your brain will light up in the exact same way as that of the storyteller. So, when they are talking about laying on a white beach in the Bahamas and suddenly seeing a shark approach, your brain will mirror this activity and let you ‘’experience” it as well. Scary, yes.
As Karen Eber said, storytelling creates artificial realities that way. It’s why we get scared when watching thrillers, even though we’re safe.
And knowing it works like that, you can use the technique to make people feel motivated to do something, by sharing a story that motivates you. If you want them to take something incredibly serious, share something that keeps you up at night—their brains will do the rest.
4. Choose designs that leave room for imagination
Once your story is complete, it’s time to start constructing the presentation that will support what you will be saying. Not the other way around.
Creating a presentation at the same time you are still figuring out what to say isn’t the way to go about presentations. Slides aren’t supposed to tell stories. You are. They are just the megaphone or big sign during the protest that makes it all the more clear what you are talking about.
Just look at what we use for presentations. It’s in the name. PowerPoint. It should make your Point more Powerful. It was never about using all the possible animations.
So if you want to create an engaging presentation, don’t think it’s engaging because a lot is happening on the screen and people will have to keep watching it to keep up. You want them to watch you. Yes, that’s scary, but hear me out.
You’ll want to minimize the distractions. Don’t aim for a beautiful presentation, but an effective one. Instead of wasting time on creating your own unique design, go for tried and tested free presentation templates that are correct design-wise and don’t make people think ‘’is that block in the middle or not really?’’ all the time.
5. Minimize the message per slide
Better yet, keep it to one. According to David JP Phillips’ in his TedTalk ‘How to Avoid Death By PowerPoint’, you’ll have to adapt to the working memory of people.
He gives the great example of checking your train ticket before you board. You’d think that people would be able to remember ‘car 5, seat 42’ after looking at it once, right? But then we take out our ticket seven more times as the train approaches and hold it in our hand to keep checking while we board.
We’re not stupid, we just have very little working memory. So if you’re designing your presentation, leave it to one message per slide. And don’t make that a long sentence or bullet points on ‘’one topic’’.
6. Help your audience focus: size really does matter
Turns out, we’ve all been using titles and content blocks wrong our whole lives.
When we create presentations, we tend to give the title—the biggest piece of text on the slide—some generic information. But what you want people to really read is below that. For some reason in a smaller font. Not bold, underlined, and italic like the title.
David tells us to cut it out. The most important part of your message should be the biggest one on the screen. That way, you’ll guide the eyes of your audience in the direction you want them to go.
7. Keep the focus on you
You are the presentation. Your slides are merely your visual aid.
The last piece of advice from David that we’ll share, is the contrast. On screen, and between you and the presentation behind you.
Many people opt for the safe route: a white background, and then put themselves in front of it.
First of all, a big white screen isn’t necessarily relaxing to your eyes. So feel free to go for something darker, something softer. Then suddenly, that big white field isn’t screaming for attention as much anymore. The focus is on you.
Get ready to get on stage
I hope all of this hasn’t just given you inspiration. I hope it made you excited about your next presentation, that you’re eager to really rock on that stage or Zoom call, of course.
About the author
Vicky Frissen is a freelance copywriter based in Barcelona. She helps brands and businesses stand out from the crowd by putting some personality in each piece of copy she writes—whether it’s a 1,000-word blog post or a short and snappy Instagram caption.