How to give more persuasive presentations

If I am to speak for ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now. —Woodrow T. Wilson


1. Audience

Understand the Audience’s Power

The people in your audience came to see what you can do for them, not what they must do for you. So look at the audience as the “hero” of your idea—and yourself as the mentor who helps people see themselves in that role so they’ll want to get behind your idea and propel it forward.

Presenters should:

  • Give the hero a special gift: Give people insights that will improve their lives.
  • Teach the hero to use a “magical” tool: This is where the people in your audience pick up a new skill or mindset from you—something that enables them to reach their objectives and yours.
  • Help the hero get “unstuck”: Ideally, you’ll come up with an idea or a solution that gets the audience out of a difficult or painful situation.

Get to Know Your Audience

  • What are they like? Think through a day in their lives. Describe what that looks like so they’ll know you “get” them.
  • Why are they here? What do they think they’re going to get out of this presentation? Are they willing participants or mandatory attendees? Highlight what’s in it for them.
  • What keeps them up at night? Everyone has a fear, a pain point, a thorn in the side. Let your audience know that you empathize—and that you’re here to help.
  • How can you solve their problems? How are you going to make their lives better? Point to benefits you know they’ll care about.
  • What do you want them to do? What’s their part in your plan? Make sure there’s a clear action for your audience to take.
  • How might they resist? What will keep them from adopting your message and carrying out your call to action? Remove any obstacles you can.
  • How can you best reach them? How do they prefer to receive information? Do they like the room to be set up a certain way? Do they want materials to review before the presentation? Afterward? What atmosphere or type of media will best help them see your point of view?

Define How You’ll Change the Audience

Before you begin writing your presentation, map out that transformation—where your audience is starting, and where you want people to end up. This is the most critical step in planning.

Ask yourself, “What new beliefs do I want them to adopt? How do I want them to behave differently? How must their attitudes or emotions change before their behavior can change?”

You are persuading members of your audience to let go of old beliefs or habits and adopt new ones. Once you understand their transformation, you can demonstrate empathy for the sacrifices they may need to make to move your idea forward.


Find Common Ground

Figure out where you have common ground, and communicate on that frequency.

  • Shared experiences: What from your past do you have in common. Do you share memories, historical events, or interests?
  • Common goals: Where are you all headed in the future? What types of outcomes are mutually desired
  • Qualifications: Why are you uniquely qualified to be the audience’s guiding expert? What did you learn when you faced similar challenges of your own, and how will your audience benefit from that insight?


2. Message

Define Your Big Idea

Your big idea is that one key message you must communicate. It’s what compels the audience to change course. (Screenwriters call this the “controlling idea.”) It has two components:

  • Your point of view: The big idea needs to express your perspective on a subject, not a generalization. Otherwise, why present? You may as well e-mail your stakeholders a spreadsheet and be done with it.
  • What’s at stake: You’ll also want to convey why the audience should care about your perspective. This helps people recognize their need to participate rather than continue with the status quo.

Express your big idea in a complete sentence. It needs a subject (often some version of “you,” to highlight the audience’s role) and a verb (to convey action and elicit emotion).


Generate Content to Support the Big Idea

Building on existing content: Push on the ideas in the content you’ve gathered. Challenge them, or consider them from a new angle. Draw new connections.


Anticipate Resistance

People will adamantly defend their own perspectives to avoid adopting yours, they’ll constantly evaluate whether what you say fits within or falls outside their views. So think through why and how they might resist.

  • Logical resistance: Can you find logical arguments against your perspective? Dig up articles, blog posts, and reports that challenge your stance to familiarize yourself with alternate lines of reasoning. This kind of research prepares you for skeptical questions and comments you may have to field—and it helps you develop a deeper understanding of the topic and a more nuanced point of view.
  • Emotional resistance: Do the people you’re addressing hold fast to a bias, dogma, or moral code—and does your idea violate that in some way? Hitting raw nerves will set off an audience, so proceed carefully. For example, if you’re at a medical conference launching a new HPV vaccination for kids, also emphasize the importance of abstinence in youth.
  • Practical resistance: Is it physically or geographically difficult for the audience to do what you’re asking? Will it take more financial means than people have? Be sensitive if you’re asking employees to hang in there as you temporarily freeze salaries to weather a recession, for instance, or giving your team a deadline that will take nights and weekends to meet. Acknowledge the sacrifices people are making—and show that you’re shouldering some of the burdens yourself. Say that your salary will be frozen, too. Or explain that you’ll be in 24/7 mode right along with your team until the big project is wrapped up—and that everyone will get comp time afterward.

You can raise and address concerns before they become mental roadblocks.

By showing that you’ve considered opposing points of view, you demonstrate an open mind—and invite your audience to respond in kind.

Share your big idea with others and ask them to pressure-test it.


Amplify Your Message Through Contrast

A skilled communicator captures an audience’s interest by creating tension between contrasting elements—and then provides relief by resolving that tension.


Build an Effective Call to Action

Presentations move people to act—but only if you explicitly state what actions you want them to take, and when. Are you asking them to be doers, suppliers, influencers, or innovators?


Choose Your Best Ideas

It’s much harder to trim everything down so only the most effective messages remain.

Designers call this part of the process convergent thinking, and they refer to its opposite, idea generation, as divergent thinking.

If you don’t filter your presentation, the audience will have to do it.


Organize Your Thoughts

When moving ideas from sticky notes to software, enter each point you plan to cover as a clearly worded title in outline or slide-sorter mode.

Ask yourself, “If people read just the titles, will they get what I’m saying?”


Lose the Jargon

Modify your language so it resonates with the people whose support and influence you need.


Craft Sound Bites

Rhythmic repetition, concrete simile, or slogan.


3. Story

Apply Storytelling Principles

They’re the most compelling platform we have for managing imaginations

  • Stories feature transformation: When people hear a story, they root for the protagonist as she overcomes obstacles and emerges changed in some important way (perhaps a new outlook helps her complete a difficult physical journey). It’s doubly powerful to incorporate stories that demonstrate how others have adopted the same beliefs and behaviors you’re proposing—that is, show others going through a similar transformation that your audience will go through. This will help you get people to cross over from their everyday world into the world of your ideas—and come back to their world transformed, with new insights and tools from your presentation.
  • Stories have a clear structure: All effective stories adhere to the same basic three-part structure that Aristotle pointed out ages ago: They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It makes them easy to digest and retell—and it’s how audiences have been conditioned for centuries to receive information. Make sure your presentation—and any story you tell within it—has all three parts, with clear transitions between them.

Create a Solid Structure

After gleaning story insights from films and books, studying hundreds of speeches, and spending 22 years creating customized presentations for companies and thought leaders, I’ve found that the most persuasive communicators create conflict by juxtaposing what is with what could be.


Craft the Beginning

If you proposed what could be without first establishing what is, you’d fail to connect with the audience before swooping in with your ideas, and your message would lose momentum.


Develop the Middle

People in your audience now realize their world is off-kilter.


Make the Ending Powerful

Many presentations simply end with a list of action items, but that isn’t exactly inspiring.

By skillfully defining future rewards, you compel people to get on board with your ideas. Show them that taking action will be worth their effort. Highlight:

  • Benefits to them: What needs of theirs will your ideas meet? What freedoms will the audience gain? How will your ideas give the audience greater influence or status?
  • Benefits to their “sphere”: How will your ideas help the audience’s peers, direct reports, customers, students, or friends?
  • Benefits to the world: How will your ideas help the masses? How will they improve public health, for instance, or help the environment?

Add Emotional Texture

Personal stories told with conviction are the most effective ones in your arsenal. You can repeat stories you’ve heard, but audiences feel more affection for presenters who reveal their own challenges and vulnerability.

Take out a notepad and start cataloging personal stories and the emotions they summon.

You can use the checklist that follows to trigger your memory. As you recall past events, jot down how you felt when you experienced them.


Inventory of Personal Stories

  • Important times in your life: Childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and later years.
  • Relatives: Parents, grandparents, siblings, children, in-laws.
  • Authority figures: Teachers, bosses, coaches, mentors, leaders, political figures, and other influencers.
  • Peers: Colleagues, social networks, club members, friends, neighbors, teammates.
  • Subordinates: Employees, mentees, trainees, interns, volunteers, students.
  • Enemies: Competitors, bullies, people with challenging personalities, people you’ve been hurt by, people you’ve hurt.
  • Important places: Offices, homes, schools, places of worship, local hangouts, camps, vacation spots, and foreign lands.
  • Things you cherish: Gifts, photos, certificates/ awards, keepsakes.
  • **Things that have injured you: Sharp objects, animal bites, spoiled food, allergens.

Use Metaphors as Your Glue

Presenters tend to overrely on tired visual metaphors instead of using powerful words to stir hearts.

For each point you make in your presentation, try to come up with a metaphor to connect people’s minds to the concept. You might even weave it like a thread throughout the presentation.


Create Something They’ll Always Remember

Place Something They’ll Always Remember –Shocking statistics, Evocative visuals, Memorable dramatization, Emotive anecdote


4. Media

Choose the Right Vehicle for Your Message

Just because you have something to communicate and a time slot to fill doesn’t mean a formal presentation with slides is the right choice.

The other, which won our business, white-boarded out full storage and network plan. That rep came across as having listened to our needs and understood what we wanted. Her presentation felt collaborative, not canned.


Make the Most of Slide Software

The only things you should actually project are images, graphics, and phrases that move your ideas along.


Determine the Right Length for Your Presentation

And keep in mind that people have a 30-to 40-minute presentation tolerance.


Persuade Beyond the Stage


How you position the talk before you even deliver it will have a big impact.


You can also tape secret messages under people’s chairs for retrieval at a key moment during your talk, have audience members hold up color-coded cards to give you feedback in real-time, or give them all a prop to interact with, such as a product prototype.


Follow up with a thank-you note, a survey, or supplementary reading or viewing material to keep your message fresh in people’s minds.

Share the Stage

They’re no longer willing to sit attentively for an hour while a single speaker drones on.
5. Slides
Create Slides People Can “Get” in Three Seconds
Audiences can process only one stream of information at a time. They’ll either listen to you speak or read your slides—they won’t do both simultaneously.
Each slide should pass what I call the glance test: People should be able to comprehend it in three seconds. Think of your slides as billboards.
•Start with a clean surface: Instead of using the default “Click to Add Title” and “Click to Add Text” slide master, turn off all the master prompts and start with a blank slide. And when you add elements, make sure you have a good reason. Does the audience need to see your logo on each slide to remember who you work for? Does that blue swoosh add meaning? If not, leave it off.
•Limit your text: Keep the text short and easy to skim. Scale the type as large as possible so the people in the back of the room can see it.
•Coordinate visual elements: Select one typeface—two at most—for the entire slide deck. Use a consistent color palette throughout (limit yourself to three complementary colors, plus a couple of neutral shades, like gray or pale blue). Photos should be taken by the same photographer or look as if they are. Illustrations should be done in the same style.
•Arrange elements with care: When you project your slides, they’ll be many times larger than they are on your laptop screen—so they need to be tidy. (Blown up, unkempt slides look downright chaotic.) Align your graphics and text blocks. Size objects appropriately. If one element is larger than another, the audience will interpret that to mean the larger object is more important.
Choose the Right Type of Slide
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by endless possibilities as you’re creating slides, rest assured—all slides can be boiled down to the following types.

Storyboard One Idea per Slide

•Keep it simple: Draw small visual representations of your ideas on 1.5′′ × 2′′ sticky notes

Limit yourself to one idea per slide: There’s no reason to crowd several ideas onto one slide. Slides are free.

As you storyboard, you’ll be able to tell immediately which concepts are clunky or overly complex (you’ll run out of space on your sticky notes). Eliminate them, and brainstorm new ways to communicate those messages.


Arrange Slide Elements with Care


People should be able to move their eyes across your slide in one back-and-forth motion and be done processing the information.


Create contrast through your elements’ size, shape, color, and proximity.

White space

White space sharpens viewers’ focus by isolating elements.


A clear visual hierarchy allows viewers quickly ascertain a slide’s most important elements.


Slides with visual unity make your message feel cohesive.

Clarify the Data

When displaying data in a presentation, pursue clarity above all else.

Start by asking, “What would I like people to remember about the data?”—and give that point visual emphasis.

Find the narrative in the data Explain not just the “what,” but the “why” and the “how” of your data. Maybe the numbers went up, but what made them go up? What impact did people have on them? How will people be affected by them?

Help your audience understand scale by communicating large numbers in concrete terms.

Turn Words into Diagrams

When you’re creating your presentation visuals, try turning some of your words into diagrams that reinforce your speech.


6. Delivery

Rehearse Your Material Well

There’s no such thing as over-rehearsing your delivery.

•Get honest feedback from a skilled presenter

•Prepare a short version

•Rehearse a few times in slide-show mode

•Practice on camera


Set the Right Tone for Your Talk


When you invite others to your presentation, send a thoughtfully written agenda with a concise but telling subject line—and be explicit about what the audience will get out of it. All communication leading up to your talk will affect your credibility and impact—so put as much thought and care into it as into the presentation itself.

Communicate with Your Body

Constricted and contrived gestures will make you seem insecure. A larger movement conveys confidence and openness.

•Project emotion with your face: Connect with the audience by using your face to convey your feelings. Smile, laugh and open your mouth in disbelief. Before you begin your talk, try moving every facial muscle you can—it’ll help you warm up.

•Peel yourself away from your slides: If you turn your back to the audience to look at your slides, you put up a barrier.

Make Your Stories Come to Life

Reexperience your stories

Narrate the story as if you’re still in the moment.

Also describe sounds, tastes, smells, and how things feel to the touch.


Get the Most out of Your Q&A

When people leave the room with burning, unanswered questions, they won’t adopt your ideas.

Think through any questions the audience might raise, from the mundane to the hostile.

Acknowledge questions from angry inquisitors—but to look at other audience members when answering.

Leaving a strong final impression: Don’t end abruptly after the Q&A—it feels incomplete and unsatisfying.


Build Trust with a Remote Audience

Place the camera at eye level.If you can, deliver your presentation standing rather than seated.


7. Impact

Build Relationships Through Social Media

Social media channels give your audience a lot of control over your PR. People can broadcast bits of your content to their followers—quoting you, synthesizing your ideas, and adding their own comments.

Create a Twitter hashtag for your presentation and invite audience members to use it to chat with you and one another about your message

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