How to Give Great Presentations – Story is Key

key to a great presentationYou do NOT need to know Powerpoint well to give great presentations.   Many people spend too much time making good looking slides and miss out on the larger picture.  There are three things that would make a presentation great.

  1. Your audience is listening intently to what you have to say
  2. Your audience understands what you are communicating and are following your reasoning
  3. Your audience plans to take action based on what you presented

Notice, I never mentioned that your audience is impressed by your slides.  The whole point of a great presentation is for the audience to listen and then take actions that you hope they would take.  I learned how to give great presentations at McKinsey.  When I first joined McKinsey out of college, I would see my manager spend a day or two writing a draft storyline for a client presentation.  The storyline is written in Microsoft Word and would only be 1 -2 pages long.  I thought how strange – how can something so short take so long.  The team would be working on individual slides for weeks, but the manager focuses mainly on this storyline.  I used to think my manager was just slacking off until I tried to write one myself on my 4th project.  I couldn’t do it well even after 3 days.

What’s so hard about writing a storyline?  Well, I learned that the storyline is really the heart of the presentation.  It must include how you will structure your presentation, how to open, what are the key reasoning and sub-points.  All the strategic decisions, major recommendations about the presentation are included in the storyline.  If you have a good story, the audience will listen and take action.  If you don’t, all the facts and perfect slides in the world will not influence your audience to act.    Over the years, I have learned that writing a good story requires you to

  1. Know what motivate your audience on this topic – Invest time to understand who are your audience for this presentation and what are their current interests, concerns, and objectives regarding this topic.  You have probably spend countless hours of work that leads up to this presentation.  Don’t falter now by forgetting your audience.  The cold truth is your audience doesn’t care how much work you put in this.   They only care if what you say interest and affect them.
  2. Recommend a practical solution instead of the perfect one – Keeping the audience in mind also means communicating a practical solution in the presentation that can be implemented instead of showing them a perfect solution that no one can achieve.   Corporations rarely can implement the perfect answer to a problem given legacy, cultural, and political constraints.   Therefore, make sure what you communicate resonate with the audience and can realistically lead to the action you desire.
  3. Decide on what logical flow to use to build maximum buy-in.   How you structure your presentation is part of the storyline and includes what you open with, what are the key reasoning you want to share and the supporting facts.  There are two common logic flows used in presentations
    1. Conclusion first – Open with your final recommendations and top reasons and then go into detail to support your reasoning.   This one should be used when the audience is open to whatever your conclusion may be and is anxious to know the result.
    2. Conclusion last – start with what the audience already know and build up to the final recommendation with a set of detailed reasoning.  This one is better suited for a mix audience where you know some people may be against the conclusion or had a different hypothesis of the outcome of your work.  By leading them through the logic, you can slowly sway them to your conclusion without shocking them at the very beginning.
  4. Build buy-in prior to the presentation – You will need feedback and buy-in from at least your boss on your storyline before the presentation.  Your boss may have information that you don’t have about your audience, their bias, goals etc…  You never know what assumption you may have made that is wrong unless you vet your story with others.  By getting feedback from your boss, you also CYA (cover your ass) and make him or her feel included.  If time permits, you may also want to have informal 1on1 meetings with the biggest influencers or naysayers that will be at the presentation.   By getting their feedback, you know what loopholes you may still have in your storyline and mend those before the actual presentation.  And again by going to these people informally for feedback, you will build goodwill and will face a more friendly audience during the actual presentation.

So spend at least 50% of your time on writing, vetting, and practicing your story when preparing for a presentation.  Once you know your storyline, the rest will fall into place.  The focus of a presentation is on you and what you say and not how your slides look.  You can have simply slides without fancy animation / graphics and still have a great presentation.   As long as your slides have the supporting facts that aligns with your story, you are golden.

Your comments:  Do you agree that telling a story is key to a great presentation? why or why not?  Add your comments below and let’s have a discussion.

I am always in your corner.

– Lei

4 thoughts on “How to Give Great Presentations – Story is Key”

  1. I have to give weekly presentations to Top Management and obtain their approval for the activities presented and the associated budget.
    Along time, I have found most useful to share the information in advance with some of the managers, clear up any doubts they may have, and get their preliminary agreement and support during the meeting.

  2. Another great read, Ms. Han! Thank you very much for writing it. In the process of pitching an idea for a very specific type of support group, I may in fact have to make such a presentation of some kind at some point in the small town that I am seeking to start the meeting in. I will let you know how things evolve and how well I am able to successfully weave in some of your brilliant ideas.

    Until next time, Cheers!

    Michelle H., Middle Tennessee

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