7 Secrets of great presentations

Unless you put the audience first and show them what is in it for them, your presentation—no matter how attractive and colorful—will fall flat.
May 31, 2021

Every presentation is a performance.  It is a performance with a specific audience in mind, concise content, delivered with energy and authority.  Whether you are doing a virtual presentation or in-person, there are common best practices that will ease your discomfort and greatly improve your impact.  If you think of yourself as the lead performer and your slides as your backup singers, you will be well along the path to Presentation Bliss (as opposed to Death by PowerPoint).  

Let me explain.

Presentations tend to be self-focused. When you are sharing visual information with clients, superiors, or co-workers you may be so immersed in getting the presentation right that you forget to connect with the audience. Presentation design expert Nancy Duarte recommends that you make your audience the “hero” of your idea so you can persuade them to your point of view.  Unless you put the audience first and show them what is in it for them, your presentation—no matter how attractive and colorful—will fall flat.

Here are seven secrets to great presentations:

1.  Understand your audience.

When you know people, it is easier to influence them.  Put yourself in their shoes.  What do they want to receive from you?  What keeps them up at night?  Why will they to listen to you?  What do you want them to do?  If you know the answers, you will elevate your influence and boost your success.  This can happen with senior management, direct reports, and colleagues alike.  Yet, when you do not know the audience, you should do your homework and research them to gain a basic understanding of what makes them tic. 

Designing a presentation without an audience in mind is like writing a love letter and addressing it ‘to whom it may concern.’ 

Kenneth W. Haemer, former presentation research manager, AT&T

2.  Start with one big idea. 

Every presentation should have one central idea that weaves throughout the content.  The rest should support the big idea and bring it to life through bold graphics, concise data points, vivid examples, memorable stories and anecdotes.  Obsess about the idea not your slide design. The best ideas almost always begin with pencil and paper, a napkin, a marker, or a whiteboard, advises Garr Reynolds, author of Presentation Zen.  “The best presentations…usually start in your mind, not on your [computer] screen,” he writes.

3.   Know your material. 

Own it.  Really know your material because you are not going to read from your slides.  You may only glance at the speaker notes.  Take your audience on a short journey that explains your big idea. If you are presenting remotely, you may be tempted to read a script.  Do not do it!  You will sabotage your presentation with a wooden, stilted delivery that will tip off your audience that you are not comfortable with your content.  Give them just what they need to know and elaborate during a lively Q+A session. 

4.  Follow the 10-20-30 rule. 

It is quite simple: a PowerPoint presentation should have 10 slides, last no more than 20 minutes, and contain no font smaller than 30 points for legibility.  The concept is attributed to Guy Kawasaki, chief evangelist for Canva.  Ten is the optimal number of slides in a PowerPoint presentation because a normal human being cannot comprehend more than ten concepts in one meeting.  Twenty minutes is a good length of time to keep peoples’ attention.  You will have 2 minutes for each slide and time for Q+A afterwards.  For virtual presentations, go shorter because attention spans are shorter online. 

5.  Simplify your slides.

People can only process one stream of information at a time.  So, keep your content simple, economical and laser focused.   Duarte recommends the “three-second glance test” to determine if your slide content is understandable in the amount of time it takes to read a billboard on the highway.  This means making the conscious decision to cut and subtract the obvious and leave only the most meaningful.  Presentation software offers spiffy slide templates; your company may require branded templates.  But use restraint to convey only the most important information.  When sharing your screen on a video conference, consider that your audience may be viewing it on different screen sizes with varying image quality.

6.  Prepare for your technology to fail.

Technical difficulties can happen in person and on a video call.  Have a backup plan, such as a PDF version you can send via email.  Make sure someone on your team has a copy of the presentation and that everything is saved in the cloud.  If disconnected, use the Wi-Fi hot spot on your phone to connect to the conference quickly and continue where you left off—even without your visuals.  Your ability to deliver your message without visual aids will attest to your knowledge and mastery of your material.

7.  Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

Record yourself on video and watch your body language, vocal quality, and cadence. Know your visuals backwards and forwards.  Einstein was a proponent of simplicity and promoted the belief that the most complex of ideas should lend themselves to so simple a description that even a child would understand. Practice in front of your family.  Tap people outside your company to gauge their understanding of what you are trying to convey.

There is a wide variety of presentation design software.  PowerPoint and Keynote for MAC are often the  defaults.  Experiment with other software to unleash your creativity, while keeping in mind the basic principles of winning presentations.

Here are some presentation design software alternatives:

Prezi –This slide software is optimized for use on the leading streaming platforms.  It allows the presenter to appear alongside the content and offers engaging templates that are easy to use.

Beautiful.ai – Offers stunningly creative templates with bold graphics to bring your content to life with great design.

Canva  –  A robust graphic design platform that includes hundreds of templates and a free image library.

Now, go find your Presentation Bliss.

Rosemary Ravinal

I teach business leaders how to shine on video calls and have more productive virtual engagement. As Founder/Chief Trainer at RMR Communications Consulting, I also help executives master the art of public speaking, inspiring presentations, and authoritative media interviews online and in person. My company’s services are available in English and Spanish in South Florida and elsewhere.

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Your success in the new normal of work depends on how well you navigate virtual and in-person communication.

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