Duoblog: What is the secret of great presentations?

Posted by Chris on June 29, 2009

matryoshka_dollScalability. Great presentations scale. Most importantly, a great presentation can always be scaled down. If you can deliver a great presentation in 45 minutes you should also be able to say the same thing in 10 minutes. Or in a 45 second elevator pitch for that matter. So, how do you create a presentation with that in mind? My advice is to start with the one thing that you want the audience to learn, then build on that.


This blog post is part of my Duoblog Series. For each topic I ask someone I know and respect as an expert on that topic to write a blog post with the same title as my post. We then post them at the same time without knowing what the other person wrote.

For advice on creating a great presentation I turn to Claudio Perrone. When I first met Claudio two years ago he had just been accepted to speak at a conference, his first public speaking engagement. Claudio is an amazing learner and quickly studied everything from storytelling and moviescript writing to creating powerful visual presentations. I have been fortunate enough to see him present a couple of times so I know that he can really engage an audience with stunning visuals and a great story.

Read Claudio Perrone’s answer to “What is the secret of great presentations” on his blog.


So much to say, so little time

Picture this: You have been given a chance to present your company’s new product in a 45 min presentation. You want to create a great presentation to make people really enthusiastic about it. So, you fire up Powerpoint and start making bullet points for everything fantastic you can say about your product. The more great things you mention, the better people will feel about it, right?

Unfortunately, this seems to be what a lot of presentations are about. The speaker tries to mention as many things as possible in the time they have available. Each slide has so many bullets that she does not even remember to mention all of them. When time runs out she jumps to the final slide to wrap things up, while mumbling that there were more interesting things to say if only there had been more time. The audience remembers a fraction of what was said, and probably have a hard time summarizing it.

I believe that this happens when the speaker starts by considering how much time is available for the presentation and then works to fill that time with interesting stuff, rather than the other way round.

Creating a great presentation

Start by defining what you would say if you only had a short moment to say it, no matter how much time you actually have for your presentation. There is probably a specific reason why you are giving this presentation. Whether you are talking about a new technology or an idea you have, there is something about it that you think is important enough that you want to tell others about it. This is the core message you should deliver, and it should take no longer than 45 seconds to deliver it. If you can make people more enthusiastic and wanting to hear more about the topic then you know you have succeeded, and you are ready to add more things to the presentation.

If you have more time available, think about how you can make that message clearer and more powerful. Resist the temptation to add another core message to the presentation. Instead add some supporting ideas that give some more detail, still with the core message in focus. To avoid adding too much consider what you would say if you had 10 minutes to present your idea. If you have even more time then add another level of detail, this time giving further support for the ideas introduced in the previous level. In this way the presentation scales up, and everything you say is still related to the one central idea you want people to learn from your presentation.

A powerful message that people will remember

Now that you have taken a different approach to creating your presentation you will need to think about how to frame the core message so that the audience will understand and remember it.

Put yourself in the shoes of your audience and ask “What’s in it for me?”. If you do not give people a reason to remember it, why would they? Put your message into a context that the audience can relate to. Describe a situation or problem that they will recognize from their own life, and then present your idea and how it solves or relates to that problem.

Introduce the core message very early in the presentation, right after setting up the context it should be delivered in. Also repeat it throughout the presentation. Specifically make sure that you end with the core message again, since people generally remember best what they learn at the start and end of a learning session.

Finally, do not be afraid to use Powerpoint or other visual aid. People favor different learning modes (auditory, visual and kinesthetic), and multi-sensory learning is a powerful memory aid. Seeing keywords in written form, accompanied by powerful images, can help your audience remember better. The important thing is to avoid confusing presentation with documentation. A bullet list with some key points is a great aid when later reviewing something, but that does not mean it has to be a part of the actual presentation. Instead provide a separate file for documentation.

Scale your presentation up from the one thing people should learn

In summary, creating a great presentation starts with a clear and concise core message that the audience can relate to. The presentation is then scaled up level by level to add more detail, all the time repeating that core message. If you feel the time is to short, make it shorter.

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