The Secret to Effective Presentations


effective_presentationsWe’ve all been there.  We’ve all sat down to see a presentation, and within the first 3 slides, we already know that this is going to be another boring meeting that will slowly sap us of any energy, creative ideas, and hope for humanity (ok that last one might be a bit extreme).  We’ve also all been on the other side of the presentation–the one giving it.

The secret to having a presentation that people are engaged in is starting off strong in the first 3 slides. With just a few tweaks, you can kick-off your presentation with energy, engagement, and have the audience’s attention.

Learn by Example

For the purpose of this post, I’ll be using a hypothetical example to show each of the suggestions in action.  For our mythical presentation, let’s say the subject matter is training on a complex tool that is used for tracking expenses, we’ll call it “Expense System”.

Why a technical presentation?  Because some people might be thinking that if it’s a technical training then there’s nothing you can do to “ease the pain”–but those people would be wrong.  By starting off with humor, you get the audience listening from the start, which can help you throughout the “eye-chart” slides that explain the tool.  If you don’t do technical trainings, don’t worry, these tips will work for your presentations as well.

Let’s start with…

Slide #1 – The Title Slide

Many people treat the very first slide as a “throw-away” slide.  It’s your title slide: Name of Presentation, Name of Presenter, Date.  But it’s much more important than that.  By having a compelling title, or subtitle, you can pique the curiosity of the audience and get them eager to learn more.  Which sounds more interesting: “Expense System Training” or “How to File Expenses in Less than 10 Minutes”?  The slides that follow could be exactly the same for the two titles above, but which one are you more interested in listening to?

Slide #2 – The Agenda Slide

The second slide of your presentation should be the agenda.  While an agenda isn’t particularly exciting, it tells the audience what to expect over the course of the next XX minutes you’ll be talking.  You don’t have to spend a lot of time on this slide, but you want to give an overview of each bullet point.  As is true for every slide in your deck, don’t read exactly what you have typed on the slide, and feel free to show some creativity in the individual discussion points.  For example, your agenda might look like:

  • Introduction – What’s this all about?
  • Launching the Application and Beginning Your Journey
  • 7 Clicks to Completed Expenses

You could then say the following, in reference to the agenda topics:

“Over the course of the presentation, we’re going to introduce what the Expense System is and what it’s supposed to do.  We’re then going to share how you can get started with the application, and then provide the details on how to quickly get everything you need into the system.”

Slide #3 – The Metaphor Slide

The third slide of your presentation is where you either hook the audience or lose them, because the third slide is your first “real” slide.  Many presentations get right into the meat of the topic, but this is where a quick detour can greatly improve your presentation.  Humans learn by metaphor, by connecting what they are now being taught with something that they already know.  This is why sharing a creative metaphor for your training (and referencing it throughout) can greatly increase the retention of the training that you give.

But don’t be intimated.  The metaphor you find doesn’t have to be something epic, such as the deep metaphor for life/death in the movie No Country for Old Men.  It’s as simple as connecting it to a single idea.  The easiest way to do this is to find an image, video, or quote, or think of a personal anecdote, that parallels your topic.

For our Expense System example, I might try to find two images that represent the old way to do expenses (a picture of a horse-drawn carriage) and the new way (a shiny new Mustang), drawing parallels between how the old way was slower, required more maintenance, and smelled funny, and how the new way is faster, has more features, and can get you a date on the weekends.  Then throughout the training, as I hit key topics, I can tie them back to the horse / car metaphor.  Now, when the user is trying to remember your training, they can think, “Oh yeah, I can find my summary on this tab because it’s like the dashboard on the Mustang.”

Slides 4, 5, 6…

The rest of your presentation can then become more technical.  But you’ve now captured the attention of the audience and already have them listening and ready to learn.  It helps to also have other examples of humor scattered throughout the presentation, either in the form of additional metaphors, interesting tidbits or asides, but focusing on your first three slides sets the stage for you to deliver a successful presentation.

For more tips on presenting, check out all of our posts on the topic of presentations.

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{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Drew April 25, 2009, 7:06 pm

    Julius–thanks for the feedback. And that’s a great question. Thinking of an applicable metaphor can sometimes seem hard, but you don’t need to think of the greatest connection in the world. Something that’s simple and easy to follow works well.

    A lot of times I think about what my audience is likely to know or understand already and relate to that. For example, if my audience is composed of computer geeks, I’ll think of something to deal with computers, the Internet, or a start-up like Twitter. If it’s a group of marketing people, I’ll relate it to a popular TV commercial or the ad campaign.

    With just a little bit of brainstorming, you should be able to find something that provides a new way of looking at your material.

  • Julius April 25, 2009, 4:16 pm

    these are some good tips for presentations. what do you do if you can’t think of a metaphor for your topic?

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