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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)
  • Simon Raybould

    Hi ricardo – most presentations on slideshare are godawful by any criteria, let alone these! 😉

    To be fair though, the criterial for online presentations are very (VERY!) different to those I train people in for live presentations.  There’s no presenter and – as the presenter is the main object of interest – there’s got to be more information carried by the slides.

    Shame that most of ’em are so crap!  😉

  • Simon Raybould

    While I agree that the presenter is more important than his/her slides, I’m not sure it’s about the speaker either.

    It’s about the message and the audience.  The speaker (like the slides) are a means to an end, if you see what I mean.  The end is ‘what the audience takes away’.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Absolutely. It’s more about the speaker than the slides, and more about the message and the audience than the speaker. 🙂

  • Andrew Wargo IV (360 Minutes)

    Barbara Glanz is absolutely one if my most favorite speakers. She holds an audience’s attention with style, humor, and grace, and never fails to charm. Her online presence can be found at http://www.barbaraglanz.com.

    Her slides, photo shows, and videos always accentuate the point she wants to make, and she can tell a story – a great story – for nearly any message.

    Andrew

  • snowelephant

    You can also find some free images through http://www.stickstock.com

  • Six Sigma Training

    Nice Article. It is very useful article for me. After reading the post, I understand how we complicate presentations.  I am very happy to read this article. Thanks for giving us nice info.

  • Project Management Certificati

    Nice Article. I am very happy to read this. I am really impressed with your blog post. Thanks for giving us nice info.

  • resume writing

    very interesting information! thanks you! appreciate your efforts!

  • Santiago Restrepo

    Hey Simon, I think prezi if not properly interveend can and most likely lead to sea sicknes, but we at our design studio love using it, i you predesign instances and understand the powerluf narrative that derives from depth possible in prezi then i think  it can lead to really nice stuff, we did this “virtual expo”for a Colombian Sculptor http://ramirezvillamizar.com/v… its in spanish but you can probably get the point, its a bit flat because thats what the nerrative needed, a walk thorugh an gallery, if you would like to see actual presentations with more interesting transitions let me know. you can see more stuff we do on http://dosunodesign.com/. Theres hidden potential in Prezi I think.

  • John Spence

    As a professional speaker for the past 18 years — you NAILED it — these superb suggestions – absolutely on target — a wonderful post!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Linda Coles.

    Spot on. Watch some of Steve Jobs’ presentations as an example. Big images, one giant word or number, and him. Great stuff.

  • Marcos Ortiz

    Wow, amazing tips to do a great presentation. What about language, how to choose the right words? Regards

  • resume writing service

    what a great post ! i enjoyed it ! thanks for sharing !

  • Majesty

    All the suggestions written in here about business presentation are indeed effective, I have read a lot of books and all these points are also mentioned. I have been presenting a lot of presentation and I am always looking forward to learning all beneficial information.

  • Majesty

    All the points written in here about business presentation are very effective. I have been presenting a lot and all of the points that have been mentioned are very much beneficial towards obtaining a successful presentation.

  • Theo

    Great and useful article as usual, thank you!

  • S Trula

    I took a big hint from Steve Jobs and try to keep my slides as free from text as possible. I just use them as my “message distillation” – so, e.g. I gave a presentation on social media for creatives, and one slide said “Social media is overrated” to encapsulate my point about the hype around it being lame, and how you should focus on engagement over high follower numbers. The other great thing about this style is that it makes it very easy to tailor my presentation to different audiences – some days I’m presenting to college students seeking to collaborate or self-promote, other days I’m presenting to arts organisations looking to organise a competition or mass-participation programme. If you tie too much detail into your slides, you need to make new ones each time – but I have one set that gives me an overview of everything I talk about and, from there, I can edit down to specifically relevant points for each crowd. And this is really easy to do on-the-fly for presentations where I don’t really know the audience I’ll be speaking to until I get there.

  • jc46202

    While it is great to have general rules for presentations, they often are less helpful when applied to a specific type of talk. Godin’s six-word limit is a specific example.  That rule works in many settings for many topics, but it shouldn’t be worshipped as a universal standard.  A broader principle—less text, more talk—however, would have great universailty.

  • Atul Vhale

    Worth read! especially for beginners. And thanks for book suggestion.

  • http://twitter.com/MSBSDmunis MSBSDmunis

    I love this post. Nearly every time I sit down to create a Powerpoint presentation, I open it again and review the recommendations. Thank you!

  • http://twitter.com/easywebcontent Easy WebContent

    Great article Mark. You covered most of the points very well. Interactivity is also key to engagement; we created an app just for that; take a look http://www.ewcPresenter.com (it’s entirely based on HTML5; there is no flash)

  • http://twitter.com/LynnOucharek Lynn Oucharek

    Simple and powerful tips. Looking forward to sharing this with others in my stream. Thanks.

  • Nicole

    This is a really compelling article, Mark! One of my favorite speakers, who also has great slides, is Matthew May. He wrote a book about simplicity and his slides follow suit!

  • Chicken Mcnuggets

    YOU’VE INSPIRED ME :O

  • Derek

    Interesting, but your introduction picture ignores all the rules that are on it.

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