I’ve presented a lot over the years. Probably more than five presentations a week for the past 20 years. Intimate one-on-one presentations through to keynote addresses to hundreds of people. Major corporate presentations through to intense pitches and everything in between.
I obsessively pay attention to the audience and have steadily refined my approach to maximise their engagement and enjoyment. Over the years, I’ve also worked with many colleagues and learnt fantastic tips and tricks from them on presenting and speaking well. I’ve taken great inspiration in storytelling from various areas: behavioural psychology (you may note some academic citations below), politics, theatre, sport and, obviously, business.
I’ve documented a few of these in the form of hints and tips on presentation best practices I’ve shared with colleagues over the years.
🧠 Open with a Visual: Start with a visual story without accompanying pictures (Dunbar, 1999). The story can be a little vignette or an extensive future vision. Whatever it is doesn’t really matter. “This morning, as I stood in my kitchen making myself a coffee, I had an idea…” or “Imagine where we will be in 2030 – ideally, this store will be filled with customers that are…” What matters is that anecdotal openers engage the cerebral cortex, stimulating imagination and taking people on your journey. I do it in EVERY presentation and speech.
- Example: Steve Jobs began his 2005 Stanford commencement speech with three visually described stories from his life, immediately capturing the audience’s attention. Their brains started imagining and picturing the journey. I’ve found it probably the most powerful device in speaking/presenting.
🔢 Triple Threat: The Rule of Three makes your points memorable (Miller, 1956). Triad are Aristotle’s three requirements for a well-structured speech: Exordium, Exposition, and Peroration—otherwise known as the Beginning, Middle, and End.
- Example: Some of the most famous speeches and lines follow this rule. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech effectively used triads like “Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina.”. Caesar’s famous “I came, I saw, I conquered” is a prime example of a triad. Most long-form movies, plays and novels follow a three-act format.
🚀 Start Simple: Priming introduces simpler concepts as a cognitive warm-up (Tulving & Schacter, 1990).
- Example: Before diving into advanced analytics, briefly explain basic metrics. Use allegories and simple examples to ensure everyone is on the same page. NEVER assume everyone will understand what you’re talking about, even in a room of experts, even if everyone says: “We know this”.
🎣 Hook & Hold: The Zeigarnik Effect keeps your audience engaged by posing an opening question and resolving it at the end (Zeigarnik, 1927).
- Example: I tend to follow a simple structure: Where are we? Why are we here? Where could we be? How might we get there? How will we know we’re there? Another way to do it is to set it up as a grand question that requires resolution. “How might we <INSERT BOLD OBJECTIVE>?
- Example: Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech saved its most stirring rhetoric for the climax. Primacy-Recency also suggests people will best remember the beginning and the end, but not so much the middle (this also applies to pitches or conference speaking slots – be the first, or be the last. You’ll likely be forgotten in the middle).
🎨 Visual Victory: Compelling visuals and data visualisation can make you significantly more persuasive (Gallo, 2014).
- Example: Visual storytelling with basic builds, visual metaphors (eg: if you have half of the credit card market, then your bar chart should be represented as half a credit card) and full page imagery helps as a backdrop to your point.
🤫 Create Silence: A well-timed pause can be more impactful than words (Poyatos, 1993).
- Example: Harking back to Martin Luther King, Jnr.’s “I have a Dream”, Barack Obama often used pauses effectively, such as in his 2008 election night speech, to let key points sink in.
🎯 Close with a Call To Action: Close with a call to action for a lasting impression (Krugman, 1972).
- Example: NEVER EVER EVER end your presentation with “Thank You”. Do a callback to a previous point. Or even better, make it a call to action. “Let’s get started” is one of my favourites.
🤲 Audience Involvement: Asking for a small favour fosters positive sentiment (Jecker & Landy, 1969).
- Example: It’s a bit pantomime, but it does work: Ask for interaction: “When was the last time you experienced this?” or “Please raise your hand if you…”.
👀 See vs. Say: Be cautious of the clash between what’s read and what’s heard (McGurk & MacDonald, 1976).
- Example: NEVER EVER READ OUT THE WORDS ON YOUR SLIDE. I’ve been in presentations where every slide on every page is written out. It’s so bad. NEVER read them out. If you want to read out copy, then read it out with a single key image on the page. Copywriters ALWAYS read out every word of their scripts in presentations. It’s a laughably bad practice that every ad agency does, and it leads to a really weird and uncomfortable vibe in the room. Here’s what we do: If it’s a TV script, then put up a key image and read the script over the top. Or if it’s a radio script, put up a picture or a silent video of a mum and two kids driving to school in a car with an imaginary radio on. And read one or maybe two examples of crafted copy. Not every single one. It’ll provide a much more powerful context.
🖼️ Pictures Over Words: Avoid overwhelming slides to prevent cognitive overload (Sweller, 1988).
- Example: Elon Musk’s SpaceX presentations often feature one powerful image per slide with a handful of words. We set a rule: you must put a dollar into a jar for every word over 20 words. And generally speaking, a rule of two minutes per slide. If it’s a 60 minute presentation, then it should be no more than 30 slides MAXIMUM.
🎭 Dramatic Arc: A well-structured narrative keeps the audience engaged (Vogler, 2007).
- Example: Shakespeare was the master of a classic five-part structure. There are many, many more structures you can draw from. They give your presentation shape, stop arguments over whose bit should go where, and most importantly, takes the viewer on a wonderful journey.
🔄 Brand a Behaviour: Coin a term or phrase that encapsulates your message (Heath & Heath, 2007).
- Example: Give your presentation a bold title. Never go into a presentation with “Option 1”, “Option 2” and “Option 3”. Give each of your concepts or thoughts a name. Each of your ideas and concepts are like your children. You’ve conceived them, given birth to them, and now you want to ensure they grow and come to life. Given them the best chance of survival with a name. At the very least, even if you can’t think of any cool names specific to your idea, then maybe look to classify things in a cool way. One way of doing this might be to set up “Now, Next and Near” instead of “First”, “Second” and “Third”. Or “Proven, Popular and Pilot” to describe “Zero Risk”, “Low Risk” and “Higher Risk”. Or “Crawl, Walk Run”.
- My wonderful friends and colleagues at The Future Laboratory have built a business on branding behaviours and consumer trends with titles such as “Womenomics” (describing the rise of earning, spending and rise in power) and “The Turbulent Teens” (describing the chaos and uncertainty that was present in so many of the teenage years of this century).
👶 Simplicity over Smarts: Simplify complex ideas into easily digestible terms (Chipman et al., 2012).
- Example: Don’t try and show people you are smart or that you’ve worked really hard on a presentation deck. It’s not an attractive trait. Show them through simplicity and great, detailed observations, insights and storytelling. Warren Buffett often uses this approach in shareholder letters and at the annual Berkshire Hathaway AGM. He and Charlie Munger are so good.
🎶 Rhythmic Resonance: Use poetic devices like alliteration, assonance and rhyme for memorability (Rubin, 1995).
- Example: Muhammad Ali’s “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” is unforgettable. Churchill uses alliteration (the use of the same letter or sound at the beginning of closely connected words) and assonance (resemblance of sound between closely connected words) to give rhythm to his speech, making it more memorable.
🔗 Chain of Reasoning: Present arguments in a logical sequence, making your conclusion inevitable (Toulmin, 1958).
- Example: Films often start with an “establishing shot” – a wide-angle view, before moving into a tighter, more detailed shot, painting more detail of what is happening before moving into specific dialogue and actions. This helps set the scene and also tell a story within a broader context. It works for the most complex topics all the way through to simple ones.
🎤 Mic Drop: Grab attention by using a shocking or counterintuitive statement (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986).
- Example: Elon Musk stating that he plans to die on Mars, “just not on impact,” certainly caught people’s attention.
📊 Give Data a Face: Humanise statistics by tying them to individual stories (Slovic, 2007).
- Example: I have a presentation structure that I call “Meet Linda”, a story of how a normal woman goes about her day, interacting and behaving in certain normal ways that might demonstrate a human context to the story. I even used this structure to create a wonderful digital experience for the Australian Banking Association.