Presentation Writing 101: The Basics

by
Kristian Olson

Take your presentation from mediocre to masterful in a few steps

An Easy Plan

If you are struggling to craft your message into a concise, impactful presentation consider these tried and true steps. I must admit, none of these ideas are my own. You can find them under different names all over the web. They can be a little varied, but at their core they are the same and they will help you find and tell your real story. I say “real” because it often takes several attempts to figure out the best way to articulate what it is you want to convey. These steps are best for large room presentations in which the presenter is delivering an argument for or against something. Smaller, conference room presentations are usually of a different variety and can take many forms, so I’m not covering them here.

  1. Refine your main idea: If you want to bring clarity for yourself and your audience, spend some good time on this. You should be able to write your main idea down in one, short sentence (maybe two for a complex subject). It will define the rest of the presentation as everything must support it. It should speak to your audience’s needs, wants, hopes or fears and should set you up to deliver a closing call to action.
  2. Do it on paper: At this point, you should not be in PowerPoint or Keynote or whatever software you will be using for your slides. Everything should be in a text editing program, on paper or a whiteboard. Also consider using sticky notes to quickly write down and organize ideas. You can then quickly order and reorder them on a wall, window or white board.
  3. Gather supporting points: All of your supporting points and subpoints should backup your main idea. If they don’t, you should alter your main idea to accommodate information that contradicts your original idea. (Or you must find a way to include contradictory information that doesn’t diminish the power of your argument.) If you exclude known contradictory information you run a strong risk of being called out by your audience or simply not being taken seriously. Once you’re sure your supporting points are in line with your main idea you can begin to organize your sub-points to create an easy, logical flow. Organize sub-points in a specific order, for example: chronologically, size, importance, etc.
  4. Craft the deck: Now you can open your presentation software and start placing content into slides. The method you should adhere to when you start figuring out which information goes on which slides is that each slide should convey a singular idea. That idea should support your main idea (the one you came up with in step one) and everything on the slide should support the title of the slide. Keep the wording concise, yet impactful. You can also push the presentation along by ending each slide with a statement or question that is answered or clarified on the next slide. If you do this, make sure that ending line is logically connected to the content on the slide it shows up on. If it’s not, don’t use it as it will feel disconnected.
  5. Determine which points need visuals: Whenever possible, you should try to include a visual representation of what you are discussing. Studies show that people are much more likely to remember information that is presented using clarifying visuals. These can be photos, illustrations, timelines, infographics, charts and/or diagrams. Be careful not to use superfluous or overly decorative graphic elements simply to “beautify” your deck. Using small, well placed graphic elements is enough if you think your slides are getting boring (thin lines, small simple shapes or icons). Your visuals should help your audience understand what you are telling them, not merely adorn your text. Also know that some complicated concepts may need to be spread out over several builds or slides.
  6. Some of your talking points may NOT need accompanying visuals. If this is the case, simply use very concise wording on your slides to help your audience stay on track. One to five words is usually best, (DO NOT write long sentences or whole paragraphs. This will cause your audience to read ahead of you, putting their focus on your slides rather than you.)
  7. Use Problem/Solution Pacing if possible: People are naturally drawn to tension and conflict. (This is why news outlets choose their content by the “if it bleeds, it leads” philosophy. They know they can pull in viewers, and therefore advertising dollars, if they offer stories that feel threatening or cause tension.) By setting up your main points in terms of problems and solutions you can use this aspect of human psychology to pull your audience into your message. They cannot help putting themselves into a problem and hoping you will tell them a solution. Depending on your audience and the time you have to present, you should consider building up the problem so the “pain points” involved are clearly understood. Doing this will help you build an emotional connection between your audience and your message. The solution will come as a real relief, rather than a mundane fact. In most situations you’ll need to explain the solution not only in terms of what you or your company has done or plans to do, but also what the results of these action were or are predicted to be.
  8. If solutions have not been discovered to the problems you are presenting, you may need to talk in terms of opportunities or you can use the problems as an impetus to direct people to find opportunities and solutions. Exposing a problem with no solution can be very effective in influencing your audience to act as long as they feel deeply connected to whatever is at stake.
  9. Use pauses and breaks: Pauses help you and your audience shift gears in mental preparation for a new category of information or sub-topic. It’s like ending a chapter in a book. There is usually some empty space on the last page and then the next chapter often starts with a whole page just dedicated to the title of the next chapter. It’s very clear you have ended one part of the story and are on to the next. In your presentation these pauses don’t have to be long, but they should be obvious. You can make it very clear that you are done with the last topic and moving to the next by using very simple section intro slides that differ in color from the more content-heavy slides in your deck. I usually use darker, full color section intros that strongly contrast with lighter content slides in the rest of the presentation.
  10. Use an Intro and a Conclusion: This may sound like a no-brainer to some and a boring speaking device to others, but without these you miss an easy and acceptable way to be redundant which will hopefully cause your presentation to be more memorable. An intro preps your audience for what you are about say. A conclusion drives it all home. These don’t have to be long-winded either. They can be one or two sentences if needed.
  11. The Call to Action: Your conclusion gives you the opportunity to ask your audience to do something with what they just learned from your presentation. This is the Call to Action or CTA. An effective CTA goes back to the heart of whatever emotional connection your audience has to your information. If you think in terms of the problem/solution you set up in the beginning you’ll be on the right track.
  12. Review and Refine: Now that you’ve got it all together. Do it again. Actually, do it again a few times. Three is the magic number, but you can refine until you are totally comfortable and confident.
  13. Rehearse… or don’t: Hopefully you have given yourself some buffer time to do this. If you are using a script, make sure everything aligns with your slides. Practice your tone-of-voice, your gestures, etc. The rehearsal step may not be as important for smaller, more conversational presentations. If you are using your slides as a jumping off point for a discussion your main concern should be uncovering objections and understanding opportunities before your meeting starts. You may use scripted notes for this, but if you are the type that would rather not, just make sure you have mentally practiced your articulation of these things in advance.

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These are the basics. It’s a clear and easy method to get you going. There are plenty of other ways to go about it, some more effective than others. I’ll be covering more advanced techniques in later posts, so stay tuned.

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