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Branding & Marketing

How to Create a Captivating Presentation

Terrified of presenting in front of an audience? Or just a little shy? How to take your public speaking ability and slide presentations from uncomfortable to awesome.

“Creativity” isn’t the first word you’d associate with the average business presentation. The phrase “Death by PowerPoint” has been a cliché for years, but sadly the same clichés are being perpetuated day in day out – slides “designed” using hideous templates, crawling with bullet points and paragraphs in tiny fonts, which presenters then read out in a monotone (turning their backs to the audience), using interchangeable meaningless corporate jargon.

But there is an alternative – and you hold the keys to it.Now, you may not consider yourself a natural presenter. Maybe, like many creatives, you are slightly shy by nature, at your most comfortable when seated at your desk or alone in the studio with your work. As an introverted poet, I can relate.

But I managed to transform myself from someone who was terrified of standing up in front of an audience to an in-demand public speaker and workshop leader. Not only that, preparing and delivering presentations is now one of the things I enjoy most about my work. Here’s how I did it – and how you can do the same:

Treat the presentation as a creative project in its own right.

Don’t think about “presenting your work,” as if the creative part were limited to the work and the presentation were tacked on afterwards. Apply the same level of imagination and passion to your presentations as you do the rest of your creative work. Once you do that, you’ll start discovering all kinds of interesting ways to get your message across in a persuasive fashion. Here are some tips to help you get started – and to illustrate why your creative talents are the perfect ingredients for a killer presentation.

1. Tap your enthusiasm.

Everyone I’ve ever coached on presentation skills has told me they want to be more confident – but I tell them to forget about confidence and focus on enthusiasm. Confidence can be impressive, but it can still leave an audience cold. Enthusiasm, on the other hand, is infectious – it will be hard for audiences to resist your passion.

2. Get to the core of your message.

If you’re an information architect, you’ll know how important it is to present the most important points clearly and simply, only introducing details when people have grasped the big picture and are ready for more. If organizing information is new to you, then here’s the quick version:

Boil your presentation down to three key points your audience must understand.

This forces you to hone your message to its essence, and helps you remember the structure of your presentation (even if the worst happens and the projector fails). It will also make the message more memorable for your audience. For more detailed advice on structuring presentations, read Cliff Atkinson‘s book Beyond Bullet Points.

3. Tell a captivating story.

Next time you hear a presenter say “I’ll begin by telling you a story…” watch the audience – you’ll see them relax into their chairs. They are re-entering the pleasant “storytime trance” they knew and loved as kids. Their critical guard is down, and the speaker has a golden opportunity to engage them emotionally, by telling a powerful story that is relevant to her theme.

You have the same opportunity. Consider the message you are trying to get across. What problem does it solve? What’s the human dimension? Who does it remind you of? Once you have the seeds of a story, practice telling and retelling it until you it makes you laugh, cringe, groan, flinch or grin as you speak. When it affects you like this, it will move your audience too.

Nancy Duarte‘s new book, Resonate, will show you how to entrance audiences with storytelling.

4. Wow them with words.

You should never try to get your presentation word perfect, by memorizing every single word – that will only make for stilted delivery. But it does pay to sprinkle it with a few choice phrases and add the odd rhetorical flourish.

It’s true that “statistics can be misleading,” but saying it like that won’t get people to sit up straight. Try injecting a little more originality:

“There are three kinds of lies. Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” -Benjamin Disraeli

For a concise guide to emulating the verbal eloquence of great speakers, read chapter 4 of Max Atkinson‘s book Speech-making and Presentation Made Easy.

5. Create stunning slides.

Slides are optional, but if you’re going to use them, make them great. Even if you’re not a graphic designer, it’s relatively easy to stand out from the crowd of bullet points and PowerPoint templates, by licensing high-quality images from stock sites like istockphoto and Veer, or searching for Creative Commons-licensed photos from Flickr using Compfight (just make sure you read the licensing terms carefully, especially for commercial use!). And Garr Reynolds‘ book Presentation Zen Design will introduce you to basic design principles for creating slides from the images.

And if you are a graphic designer, check out Nancy Duarte’s beautiful book Slide:ology, for a stimulating guide to the creative possibilities of slide design. Nancy and her team designed the slides for Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” presentation and feature film, so she knows a thing or two about creating slides with impact.

6. Keep it simple.

Simplicity – focusing on core themes and eliminating fluff – is the key to a lot of great design, great writing, great music, great dance, and great art of many kinds. It’s also one of the things that makes presentations powerful and memorable.

This is all you need for a truly great presentation:

  • One big idea
  • Three key points
  • One compelling story
  • One idea per slide (and no more than six words)
  • One clear call to action

As with any other creative project you’ve executed, the challenge is to pare it down to the essentials, using your critical thinking skills.Looking at the list, you can see it’s made up of the core skills of creative professionals: crafting messages; organizing information; telling stories; choosing words carefully; and creating striking visuals. You probably don’t have all of these skills, but I’m sure you have at least one or two. Start with these, then work to acquire the others using the resources I’ve listed.

For example, I’m pretty good with words, and telling stories is second nature to me, but I had to study to learn how to develop visually striking slides. But if you’re a designer, you can give yourself a head start on other presenters by creating a remarkable slide deck, which will boost your confidence – then start working on your verbal delivery and storytelling.

The ultimate test will be your audience’s response. But a sure sign that you’re on the right track will be when you start looking forward to creating your next presentation…

Over To You

Who are your favorite public speakers? How do they create their effects?

Where can you start to inject a little more creativity into your presentations?

For a FREE 26-week creative career guide sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder. And for bite-sized inspiration, like Mark’s Facebook page here.

Comments (51)
  • Craig Hadden

    Great points, Mark. I’ve written about many of those tips too.

    One question though – why “no more than 6 words” on a slide? Seth Godin even breaks his 6-word rule himself, as the video in the post below shows. And in business (or higher ed), I don’t know how you can use just 6 words to label a simple chart that has 6 data points and at least 1 axis.

    Instead of “no more than 6 words”, I say “up to about 15”. Here’s why – backed up by data from Nancy Duarte, Garr Reynolds and Jerry Weissman:

  • Amir Elion

    Thank for these Mark. Indeed focused advise and to the point.
    I’ve been writing about creative presentation ideas as well and collected those into an app:

  • Faheem

    Good points highlighted. Especially the links to learning about better presentations and picture sources.

  • Clem

    Thanks for this concise post that pretty much resume what a great presentation is about! I’ve covered powerpoint design topics as well, don’t hesitate to give your fedback:

  • Alexander Dik

    I would like to recommend you my new app for presentations:

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