How to compose a business presentation

What makes for a successful business presentation? It’s more than just a set of informative slides or a well researched speech. If you want to wow your audience and have them engaged and connected, actively listening to what you have to say, there are a few key techniques you can employ.

1. Don’t be afraid to be animated

Think of the most powerful speeches ever given. They are not delivered in a monotone. They don’t shy away from a dramatic pause. They are full of expression.

Audiences can instinctively tell if a presenter buys into whatever it is they’re selling, and it often comes down to passion. This is also what will help you connect with your audience.

Vary your tone, your pitch, and your pace. Let it enhance the story you are trying to tell.

2. Show, don’t tell

When it comes to your slides, that is. The human brain finds it very difficult to focus on more than one thing at a time, so if your slides contain a lot of text, this is going to take the attention off you and what you have to say.

Your slides should enhance what you have to say, not be a second separate source of information. They are visual aids, so keep text to a minimum and use images or graphs instead.

Having said that, you should make sure to vary your slides. In order to make your words more memorable, try to tell the story in a visual way.

3. Tell a story

You’ll note the use of the word ‘story.’ Stories are how people connect, and connection will take you a long way in trying to persuade your audience that what you have to say matters. It will also make your presentation more memorable.

How can you tell a story? Ensure it has all the basic elements of a good narrative structure: a clear beginning, middle, and strong conclusion. Begin with discussing the state of things as they are (or were, if you’re reporting on results). Introduce conflict or contrast. And end with a solid resolution or results. Include key takeaways you want your audience to leave with, and if applicable, a compelling call-to-action.

Remember: tension and conflict is what audiences find interesting. It’s also what will convince them to adopt your view. Contrast the old with the new, the before and after, and use your presentation to chart the path.

4. Know the limits to memory

Unless they’re paying particularly thorough attention, most people will only remember the first and last things in your presentation. This is a well-known, well studied bias in psychology call the Serial Position Effect.

That doesn’t mean they won’t listen to the middle. But it does mean you spend more time maintaining your audience’s attention through the middle of your presentation.

This is where a bit of strategic thinking can come into play. Knowing your audience will only remember the beginning and end, you can use these time slots to their full effect. Use the beginning to set up a strong narrative, and the end to summarise your findings.

5. Understand your audience

Just as you need to understand the limits of memory and attention, you also need to understand who it is you’re talking to. A room full of mathematicians are going to be much more amenable to a more numerical presentation than a room full of artists, for example. That’s quite an extreme example, but understanding what your audience is there to accomplish and how they will best receive that information should inform the way you speak about your subject.

Similarly, your audience is going to be full of both extraverts and introverts. That means if you’re aiming for audience participation, roughly half the room will love it while the other half will hate it. Design your presentation to address both: voluntary participation, for example, might help those more outgoing members of your audience to engage with you, leaving the other half safe and comfortable watching a live demonstration of your point.

At the end of the day, it’s important to keep in mind that your presentation is there to sell an idea. That relies upon a strong connection with your audience. By understanding who they are and how to engage with them, and by delivering a memorable, compelling presentation, you can guide them from point A to point B, and motivate anyone to action.

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