Seven ways to give your presentations maximum impact

A salesperson gives a sales pitch

Presentations are a crucial cornerstone of business communication - from internal meetings and industry conferences to pitching to a potential client or investor. Ann Shellard suggests seven ways to make sure your presentations have maximum impact

Approaches to presentation design are often far from ideal: even for important meetings, assembly of the crucial presentation will often be slapdash and done at the last minute. Conversely, some businesses use rigid templates for all their presentations, which leave little room for flexibility.

There is, however, a middle way that gets great results, is pretty straightforward and which allows your creative juices to flow. These seven simple tips will transform your presentations - and the experience of presentation design may even become enjoyable.

1. Make it relevant to your audience

The best place to start your presentation is nowhere near a laptop or even a piece of paper. In fact, it's probably best if you have your eyes closed. This is because the first thing you need to do is take a moment to think about your audience and how to make the presentation relevant to them.

Think about:

  • Why are they attending?
  • What are they hoping to learn/discover?
  • Why should they care about your presentation and what benefits could it bring to them?

If you can answer those questions, you're off to a really good start. Make sure that in the first few slides you show the audience that you "get it" by setting the scene of a presentation which is relevant and beneficial to them.

A presentation should not be an opportunity to demonstrate how much you know, or even how amazing you, your company or your product is: it's an opportunity to show your audience how much you can help them.

The presentation is for them, not you, and that's actually a remarkably hard mental jump to make - one that many presenters never manage. So set yourself apart and get your audience on side straight away by looking at your presentation from their perspective, not from your own.

2. Create a clear structure

Your first few slides have set the scene and got your audience engaged and interested. Don't lose them now by allowing your presentation to drift from point to point in a seemingly meaningless way. Use a clear structure to help your audience stay focused.

Reveal the structure immediately after the introduction: state all the key points you're going to cover, and try to keep them to just three or four. Three is the ideal - it has been scientifically proven to be an easy number of points for most people to remember. If it really needs to be four or five points, so be it, but any more than that and you might want to consider reducing your content or merging some sections together.

Like a traditional story, use an introduction, middle and end, but - unlike a traditional story - don't leave any surprises to the end. In fact, you should tell your audience everything they need to know right from the start. I'm sure you'll have heard the mantra: tell them what you're going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you've told them.

Within the main body of the presentation, go through the key points one at a time, explaining and expanding on each point using examples that your audience can relate to. The key points should flow logically from one to another, for example 1) this is the problem, 2) these are the possible solutions, 3) this is what we're going to do.

3. Tell stories to engage and connect

Dry facts and figures are guaranteed to put most people to sleep. But if you can present the facts and figures within an engaging story, drudgery turns to drama and the experience is transformed.

People like stories: stories trigger our imaginations and stimulate our emotions. Emotions, in particular, work to pin information to our memories more securely, so don't be afraid to use elements of surprise, humour and tension or suspense where appropriate.

Stories also use a narrative structure familiar to us from childhood, so we don't have to work hard to follow them. The result will be a far more enjoyable and memorable experience for the audience. If your aim is to persuade or influence, stories can help ensure you have success here.

4. Visually signpost your slides

Everyone drifts off now and then. It's a fact, irrespective of how fascinating your presentation is. Signposts can help prevent drift and will pull a viewer back onto the right track if they do mentally wander away for a moment and lose their place. Visual signposts are cues that show your audience where they are in the presentation. Signposts should not be subtle - they need to be extremely clear in order to work, using shapes, colours and icons.

For signposts to be effective, reveal the basic structure of the presentation early on, in a simple overview slide: show the audience the colours, icons and titles of each section here. These visual cues can make each section distinct and easy to recognise. The aim is to make following the structure of your presentation easy for your audience, so they can relax and focus on the content.

5. Give your headlines meaning

Key messages need to be presented as short, clear headlines. Research has revealed that people can read much more quickly than they speak.

This means that if you put too much text on your slides the audience will be busy reading the words and not listening to you, your spoken words will quickly become out of sync with the written words. A short headline, however, can be read in just a few seconds, leaving the audience free to focus on what you're saying.

Try to write the headlines using a natural voice and make each headline genuinely informative. "We did well in Q2 2017 because of our innovative ad campaign" is informative, while "Profit and Loss" is not.

6. Use images to improve communication

Visuals are an essential tool for clarifying your written and spoken messages. But make sure your visuals are clear, simple and directly relevant to the message; there isn't time for your audience to decipher an obscure or overly clever link. The visuals also need to reflect your brand and the tone of the overall presentation, but they don't need to be works of art - they simply need to deliver clear, intelligent communication.

The visuals will not only clarify the words, but more importantly they'll stimulate the audience's visual channel, offering a second layer of understanding and knowledge retention.

Research has shown that when information is delivered through both visual and listening channels, it stays in the memory up to six times longer than information delivered through words alone. Visuals in your presentation are much more than something to look at, they bring colour and clarity to your message, helping your audience to understand and remember for much longer.

7. Animate to avoid cognitive overload

Sometimes you'll want to use a number of different images on one slide, to explain your message as fully as possible. But this can confuse an audience who don't know where to look first. This is where animation comes into its own.

Using staggered animation, you can introduce one visual at a time, at a measured pace, so that the audience is guided through the visuals in the correct order and doesn't suffer from cognitive overload. You can also use animation to emphasise key elements, ensuring that the audience definitely gets the point you're trying to make.

Written by Ann Shellard.

What does the * mean?

If a link has a * this means it is an affiliate link. To find out more, see our FAQs.