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Big Ideas

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)
  • Deskthoughts On...

    I completely agree with the article.

    Personally I follow couple of simple rules when creating and doing presentations: keep clear and structured, maximum 3 information per slide, never read what’s on the slide and speak to catch the attention (which is often “speak about uninteresting thing in an interesting way”). They work 😉

    And I must agree to one thing – simple and clear slides doesn’t mean they have to look awful or are the least important. Nicely designed slides catch attention, and that’s the first and most important step to successful presentation.

  • Brian Lemen

    I think that number 6 alone is a great tip. More people should follow this advice!

  • TradersCrucible

    Keeping it this simple does not always work for presentations with high levels of data for a sophisticated audience.   For example, if you are giving a pitch to a company, this works.  If you are giving a presentation on your patent to engineers, it doesn’t.  

    But starting from the “less is more” approach is good.  Less words and more visuals works.  If you have lots of word information, you can tack it on in slides at the end that you don’t present but give out to people.   

  • MUDEO

    I’m immediately reminded of contemporary Danish architect, Bjarke Ingels, and his presentation at TED in 2009. http://www.ted.com/talks/bjark

    He demonstrates his passion through his enthusiasm. Slides are simple full-bleed images, and his stories are engaging because they’re fast-paced. I think he’s setting new standards in how we present architectural work.

    Also worth a look is his interactive video for the 8 House design (in Danish with English subtitles) 

  • Mark McGuinness

    I agree that you need to tailor the approach to the audience – what’s ‘simple’ for one audience is very complex to another. As Einstein said, we should make things as simple as possible but no simpler!

    “If you have lots of word information, you can tack it on in slides at
    the end that you don’t present but give out to people.” Yes, great idea!

    I’d take it even further and produce a separate written document with all the data, technical specifications etc. This would NOT be the slide deck, but a separate written document in Word, pdf or printed form.

    When it came to the slide deck, I would still make the slides as simple as possible – e.g. highlighting one key point about a data set or diagram per slide. (And if necessary using several slides showing different aspects of the chart or diagram.) Check out Garr Reynolds’ examples of Signal vs Noise in data slide design. http://www.presentationzen.com

  • Mark McGuinness

    Thanks, great example.

  • Vnesci

    I loved this article. As a writer who is shy, but also fascinated by public speaking, I found this post really useful.  I also think you hit the mark with what you said about enthusiasm – it’s far more important than confidence. Thanks for the great post! If you have time, check out my website http://www.write-a-holic.com. I would love some feedback 🙂

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  • David Bloomfield

    Where Powerpoint is the choice of slide show presenters, listeners still tune out and receive only 20% of what they hear.   Whereas Video can engage multiple senses, and deliver the same message in less time than an explained slide show.  Its all about ways that keeps audience attention, and works emotions that in turn stimulate the inner desire to be entertained and not think a whole lot.   More about this is found in, guess what , a series of videos http://www.ozcommunications.com.au

  • ruchitgarg

    Wonderful article!

    Slides often fall short of expectations when share on internet, no matter what.

    Presentation gurus are now opting  to share both slides and video over http://www.9Slides.com and make their online presentations much more compelling. Check it out!

  • Mark McGuinness

    Glad it was helpful.

    Looks like there’s some good stuff on your site. But you have a lot of different types of content! You’ll find it easier to build an audience if you focus on doing fewer things (see ‘simplify’ above). E.g. My creativity blog benefited when I stopped writing about poetry (and gave that its own blog).

  • Mark McGuinness

    I can see where you’re coming from David but I’m afraid I disagree.

    PowerPoint is just a tool, albeit one that is normally used horrendously badly. But have a look at http://www.presentationzen.com… for examples of beautiful and striking slide decks created with PowerPoint.

    Personally I don’t like video as a presentation tool, unless it’s showing something it would be impossible to present in any other medium (E.g. an animated cartoon at an animation festival. But then that’s more of a screening than a presentation.)

    I can watch video online, but when I go to a presentation I want a live human connection with the speaker.

    I’ve tried showing video as part of my own presentations, but I notice that audiences go into ‘cinema mode’ which is very passive, and it’s hard to bring them back and get them engaged afterwards.

  • Jeffrey Cufaude

    The one image 6 words rule is now over-used and a tad overwrought.  I recently sat through a presentation that offered gorgeous, readable slides that shattered this rule completely.

  • Jeffrey Cufaude

    I think video can be a great tool if the insight and learning is best derived through seeing something in action, but as you aptly note, using them has to be balanced with maximizing the face-to-face time of the live presentation.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Well maybe Seth was being a little provocative. 😉 

    Don’t suppose you have a link to those slides? I’d be interested to see them. 

  • venece

    I think we’ve all seen our share of craptastic presentations that either shoot you to death with way too many bullet points or flood you with bad images and graphics. To me what makes a huge difference is how engaging the actual speaker is. The speaker and the visual presentation are equally important but if the visual presentation is on point (no pun intended) but, at the same time, the speaker is about to put me in a coma, the entire presentation just failed.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes, the presentation is more about the speaker than the visuals. Great slides are the icing on the cake, but they are optional.

  • Custom essays

    Thanks for useful information. I got a lot of ideas to improve my site. Thanks

  • C.N.Narayana

    A great but simple stuff..after reading the same, I understand how we complicate presentations..I had my initial training on presentation in my early days at Mumbai by Silent message by Mr.Arvind Nadkarni..and later on by GE..this info gives further assurance that I can always do well in PPT if I make it simple…thanks….C.N.Narayana, New Delhi

  • Affordable Logo Design

    Excellent work ,this article is very simple to understand thanks for sharing informative tips  with us. 

  • ricardososa

    Mark, useful points. It’d be interesting to do a thorough study of popular presentations on sites like slideshare.net based on these criteria.

    Also, the medium is just part of the story; for the delivery, I’ve found these golden rules:
    1. Go slow, sp. when explaining complex information avoid rushing
    2. Once you think that your slides are ready go back and delete half of the slides
    3. Pilot your presentation previously (within your department or with your students)
    4. Ask people in the audience to rephrase or explain what they see, sometimes *you* end up learning something new from your own slides

  • Itzach Stern

    Still the best way to have captivating presentation is possessing enough confidence to stand and portray your intention and the way this idea suggest different types and notion on how to strive this task can be a great tool as well as the Presentation tips I have discovered online.

  • Asko Kauppi

    That’s a good counter-point. I think however that it goes to the category “to break the rules, one must first master them”. And naturally following some rule just so that it’s below 6 words is simply… funny. 

    However, the best slide ever I’ve seen only had: 2%. ( that was the efficiency of a car, from chemical energy to the energy used to move the passengers )  But naturally, the presentation rocked. But what I do remember is the slide.

  • Mina Legnered

    Thanx for a great article. I was myself in a creative dip couple of years ago puzzling around with Powerpoint slides. But then – I had a an epiphany when I discovered Prezi (http://www.prezi.com). It’s a simple presentation tool enabling creative, enjoyable presentations online/offline. Love.

  • Simon Raybould

    I was asked to review Prezi in its development stage and I have to admit I was a bit ‘meh’… It’s a nice trick that it does but (certainly then) it’s a one trick pony.  We’d substitute death by powerpoint for death by sea-sickness!  😉

    Simon

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