image I’ve just spent a few days away at a conference where there was a huge variety of presentation styles and effectiveness of presentations, some good and some much less so. This has prompted me to write this three part post to remind people of some of the secrets of a good presentation.

I have been giving presentations for many years, which has allowed me to fine tune my style and techniques so that I now consistently get excellent feedback following presentations and am usually able to convey my intended message.

Aim of a presentation

A formal presentation will typically have one of two main purposes:

1. To convey a message or idea so that the audience understand this message

2. To promote debate about a particular topic

There can be a variety of other types of presentation, such as a presentation for a retiring employee or an awards ceremony presentation, but these are typically variants of the two main types of presentation above.

At the end of your presentation, if the audience do not understand the message you have been giving, then you have been wasting each other’s time.

Presentation content

Microsoft PowerPoint, and similar programs, can be very powerful tools to improve the delivery of a presentation; similarly they can be very capable of destroying the effectiveness of a presentation and losing the concentration of an audience. Anyone who has sat through a “death by PowerPoint” presentation using too many slides, with too much content and poor visual style will confirm this.

I generally recommend using a “less is more” principle – fewer slides, with few (or no) words and minimal animation. This approach relies on suitable use of (simple) graphics to convey a message – an audience will typically not remember any of the words on slide, but they will tend to remember slides with effective use of images and graphics. Some of the more successful presentations I have delivered and received have had slides with virtually no words.

A general guide used by many presenters is that, on average, the message on a slide will take 2 minutes to deliver, so if you have 60 slides for a 30 minute presentation, you know your will be in trouble! I don’t subscribe to any rigid rules about numbers of bullet points on a page/font sizes etc. as long as you follow the less is more principle.

The use of colour needs to be suitable – use enough to make key messages stand out, but not too much to distract the audience. Avoid the use of light text on a light background or dark text on a dark background – similarly clashing combinations of text and background colour should be avoided.

The general flow of content should be similar to the following list:

  • Title slide – state who you are, the title of the presentation and, if relevant, refer to the event you are presenting at
  • Agenda – tell the audience what areas you will be covering, but don’t fall in to the trap of using the agenda slide to give your presentation
  • Content– This is the majority of your presentation
  • Conclusions – Summarise the conclusions of your presentation on a single slide
  • Agenda – Repeat the agenda to remind the audience of the topics covered
  • Questions slide – If relevant, provide a specific slide to prompt for questions

Know your audience

When preparing a presentation it is essential that you consider the specific needs of your audience and adapt your content to suit. Some questions to consider:

  • What is the level of knowledge of your audience?
  • Are all the audience at a similar knowledge level?
  • Are all the audience at a similar level of seniority?
  • What are the current targets and objectives for your audience?
  • Identify current challenges and issues the audience may be facing and include reference to them in the presentation
  • If your presentation one of a series where there is a recurring theme, make sure you refer to this theme

Part 2 of this series provides tips on delivering your presentation and Part 3 covers handling questions and dealing with problems.

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3 thoughts on “Secrets of a good presentation (Part 1 of 3)

  • 22nd July 2010 at 11:50


    I want to watch you present. Right now.

    We’re from the same school of thought, particularly:

    I generally recommend using a “less is more” principle – fewer slides, with few (or no) words and minimal animation.

    Preach it.

  • 22nd July 2010 at 13:47

    Based on the various conferences that I have attended it seems with technical presentations is that the presenter feels obligated to put as much verbiage on the slide as possible because that is the only take away that audience is provided. This places the presenter in direct competition for the audience’s attention and begs the question, “Is the audience their for the speaker or the slide deck?”

    As a presenter, I want the audience attention on me and my message. But as a presenter you are often at odds with the conference host who wants to hand out my slide deck on their template (advertisement?) at the end of the session. It would be more meaningful for the session attendees to provide the them with a well formatted word document containing my additional detail or notes that they can read at their leisure.

    I have been a strong believer in the work done by Garr Reynolds at His approach to building presentations falls directly inline with what you describe here. It is something that I love discussing with presenters who give a damn about what they do when they have a captive audience.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • 23rd July 2010 at 10:09

      Phil, Rob,
      Thanks for the comments, there are clearly a few of us with the ‘right’ mind set.
      I had not come across Presentation Zen before, thanks for the recommendation.
      Purveying detailed technical information is aways a challenge and generally a presentation is one of the less good ways of doing this. If you are able to provide a technical paper/report prior to the presentation, then your presentation could provide a framework for discussion of the details.



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