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A Good Presentation Needs Structure

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When you deliver a presentation, you know what you want to say but your audience doesn’t. It’s like you are on one side of a body of water and your audience is on the other.

Your goal is to get the audience across to your side; your presentation is the bridge that will help them do just that. And like any good bridge, your presentation needs structure if it is going to stand.

I break down the structure of a presentation into three parts: the opening; the body; and the conclusion. Let’s look at each part in turn. (Although content and delivery are both important for any presentation, in this post I am focusing on content.)

 

The Opening

You get one chance to make a good first impression and so you want your opening to be strong. A strong opening fulfils two objectives.

1) A good opening hooks the audience

Your audience’s attention is at its highest at the beginning of your presentation so you want to capitalise on it. Speakers who begin in a mundane fashion – “Uh, good morning everyone. So … I’m happy to be here. My name is So-and-So and today we are going to talk about X” – usually miss the opportunity to seize on the audience’s expectation.

There is no rule that says you have to begin with “Good morning” or something similar. There is no rule that introducing yourself has to be the first thing you do. And as for being happy, don’t say it. Show it in your smile and enthusiasm.

Here are six ways to hook your audience’s attention from the outset:

  • Ask a rhetorical question
  • Ask your audience to imagine something or recall a time in their lives when something happened
  • Make a bold statement
  • Tell an interesting fact
  • Recite a quote
  • Tell a story

Whatever you choose, be sure that it relates to the topic of your presentation.

2) A good opening let’s the audience know where you’re going

Look at the image below:

 

straight road, tree lined, disappearing into the distance

 

It’s beautiful, isn’t it? But as beautiful as it is, I have no idea where I am or where I am going. That’s because there is no signpost to direct me.

Once you have hooked your audience, you need to let people know where you are going with your presentation. Otherwise, the audience will get frustrated. Have you ever been in the audience and found yourself thinking: Where is he going with this? What’s her point? Like I said, it’s frustrating.

And so you need to signpost your talk. It doesn’t take much. In fact, it could be a single sentence. For example: “Today I want to share with you three reasons why we should open an office in Southeast Asia: lower taxation; a skilled workforce; and market proximity.”

Clearly, there is a lot more that I would need to know about the proposal before agreeing to it. However, that sentence is sufficient to let me know where the speaker is going with the presentation and now I can comfortably enjoy the ride.

 

The Body

The body of your presentation is where you can develop your ideas in greater detail. This part represents the bulk of you presentation, so you need to give it some thought. I recommend the following steps.

1) Gather content

You need content for your presentation. Often, you can talk about many things in support of your message. Now is the time to jot them all down on a sheet of paper. Don’t self-edit as you go; write everything down, no matter how insignificant it might seem. Try to distill each idea into a word or two.

When you have finished, you should have a sheet full of ideas. You are now ready for the next step.

2) Choose the most important ideas

Leonardo da Vinci said that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. Too often, speakers fail to hit the mark because they try to cover too much information. Audiences can only remember so much information. The more you add, the harder it will be for them to remember.

So it is incumbent on you to choose the most important things and set the rest aside. I appreciate that setting things aside can be difficult, but you have to do it. Think for a moment about the complexity of the projects on which you are currently working. If you were asked to give a 30-minute presentation on any one of those projects, I’d be willing to bet that you could only cover a fraction of the detail related to it.

Don’t talk about everything. Pick what is most important for this audience on this occasion and focus on that. You can even signal to the audience that there is more to know but that today, you are only going to focus on two or three or four ideas.

3) Order the ideas

Once you have the key ideas about which you will speak, you need to order them in a way that makes sense. Depending on what you are talking about, you have different options. Here are five ways to order your content:

  • Chronological – for example, the history of a company or product
  • Sequential – for example, a process or business plan
  • Climax – when trying to persuade the audience to do something; points arranged from the least important to the most important, thus building to a climax
  • Headline – also when trying to persuade the audience to do something but here, the points arranged from the most important to the least important; useful for a small audience of busy, senior, give-me-the-bottom-line-now people
  • Pros and Cons – when considering options

4) Add support detail for each idea

Now that the ideas are in the right order, you want to add supporting detail as necessary. Examples of supporting detail include data, charts and graphs, stories, quotes, authoritative sources, visuals, metaphors, demonstrations and more.

You have to decide what is the most effective way to support the points that you are making. However, it is always good to have elements of all three of Aristotle’s pillars of rhetoric.

5) Don’t forget the transitions

Transitions in a presentation are like the stitching in a shirt or dress. They don’t take up much space and when they work well, we don’t really notice them. However, when they are loose, it affects the whole garment.

Too often, the different points in a presentation blend into each other like the compartments on a train. This makes it more challenging for the audience to follow. It is important to leave enough space between two ideas so that the audience understands that you are moving onto a new point.

Just as you need to signpost what your talk is about in the opening, so too you need signal when you are moving on to a new point in the body of your talk. And once again, it does not have to be long. Once you reach the end of one point, a simple “The next point is …” or “Another reason in support is …” or “Now that we’ve discussed X, let’s look at Y …” will suffice. It will allow the audience to shift gears mentally and get ready for the next idea.

 

The Conclusion

Just as you want to start strong, you want to finish strong. Too many people waste their conclusions with a weak “Thank you” and exit the stage. You have to resist that urge and maximize your conclusion. Here are five ideas on how you can do just that.

1) Slow down

As many people reach the conclusion, they can see the “finish line” and accelerate in order to end and get off the stage as quickly as possible. You must do the opposite. Now is the time to slow down so that each word sinks in.

2) Summarise your talk

Repeat your message. If you are trying to persuade the audience to do something, succinctly summarize the different ideas in support, in the same order in which you presented them in the body of your talk.

3) Make your call to action

The most powerful presentations are the ones that move the audience to take some kind of action. Now is the time to leave the audience with your call to action. If your call to action is a big one, have a simple first step that they can take. Studies show that if you can get people to take a small step towards a larger goal, the chances of them reaching that goal are greatly increased.

4) Return to the opening

Most people think of a presentation as something that is linear but I prefer to think of it as something that is circular. In other words, in your conclusion, you return, briefly, to your opening.

Thus, for example, if you began with a story, you could finish the story; if you began with a quote, you could come back to the quote; if you told an interesting fact, you could reiterate it (and perhaps add another interesting fact).

Returning to the beginning adds a nice polish to your presentation and signals to your audience that you are approaching the end.

5) Do not have a “Thank You!” slide

It’s a terrible slide, as is “Questions?” I explain why in this post.

 

Final Thoughts

When you give a presentation, it is your job to get the audience across the metaphorical bridge that separates them from you idea. Ensuring that your presentation has a solid structure – the opening, the body and the conclusion – will help ensure that they reach the other side.

 

If you liked this, you might also like

Rethinking Title Slides

Rethinking Final Slides

The 4 Most Important Steps When Preparing Your Speech

John Zimmer
John Zimmer is an international speaker, trainer and lawyer. He has worked at a major Canadian law firm, the United Nations, the World Health Organization and is now a full-time speaker. A seven-time European Champion of speech contests, John writes an internationally recognized blog about public speaking, Manner of Speaking. He is also the co-creator of Rhetoric – The Public Speaking Game™.
John Zimmer
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