Creating successful presentations

Part 1: Organized presentations

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Presentations are a standard format for both internal and external business communications. A well-planned presentation can help inspire clients, convince decision-makers, and even boost your career by proving your management skills. On the flip side, just one poor presentation could ruin a business, a reputation, or your own professional opportunities.

Create professional presentations using the OSCAR principle

When you create a presentation, the most important factor to bear in mind is that your audience will follow you throughout. Unless they keep up with your train of thought, there’ll be no chance to achieve your objectives of presenting to them in the first place, usually to impress, convince or inspire them.

When you next create a presentation, keep the acronym OSCAR in mind:

O – organized – create a clear, solid structure for your whole presentation
S – simple – keep your slides clear and easy to follow
C – concise – remember, less is more, too much is confusing and boring
A – appealing – style and visual elements should be consistent throughout
R – relevant – your slides should resonate with your audience

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Devise a clear framework

Your presentation’s structure plays a key role in its overall success. What’s the point of being a charismatic speaker with attractive slides if the whole presentation sequence is confusing? Your audience, whether two people or 200, must be able to identify the structure and links between various presentation components quickly. Your key recurring theme must be clear throughout the whole presentation so your audience will stay with you.

Before you design any individual slides, it’s important that you give enough thought to the entire presentation structure, from start to finish. C-level audiences particularly expect logically organized presentations. They’re usually pressed for time and want to grasp key messages quickly. A methodical structure also helps you to memorize and navigate the presentation sequence more easily. This makes the whole presenting experience smoother and more impressive for the audience.

PowerPoint tops the charts for presentation software usage:

There are around 500 million PowerPoint users worldwide.
350 new PowerPoint presentations are started per second.
That’s around 30 million presentations every day!

Basic structure

You can organize your presentation in several different ways, depending on the topic and target audience.

The basic structure is always the same, with these three parts:

  • Introduction
  • Main body
  • Conclusion

This might seem obvious, but this simple rule forces us to think about how to broach the topic and what we want to show at the end, after the main body.

Introductions - Get off to a good start

Gentle introductions

This is where you warm up your audience with a few slides covering their prior knowledge or the status quo. Content on these slides should always be very simple or even familiar for your audience. This lets you slowly guide them to the core message of your presentation. Listeners must agree with all the points up until a challenge or complication is raised, along with any associated questions.

Gentle introduction structure

  1. Situation: The stable, known state. A brief overview of developments over recent months or years till now, or the current status.
  2. Complication: Something has happened or could happen. This indicates a possible change to the known situation.
  3. Question: How can or must we respond to this?

Powerful introductions

Start with a statement that surprises or shocks your listeners. This instantly grabs their attention and ensures they’ll want to hear more. The “shock” can be a statistic, a quote, a short story with a surprising outcome, a fascinating piece of information or even a thought-provoking question.

Whatever you choose, your powerful introduction must be

a. factual – or it won’t be easy to regain your audience’s trust

b. relevant to your audience – or you’ll struggle to keep their interest and attention

Powerful introduction structure

  1. Situation: Something has happened or could happen: Research findings, the outcome of an event or a recent interview revealing key updates to start off with.
  2. Complication: Possible consequences. What does this mean for us or you?
  3. Question: What can we do about it? How could or should we respond?

Body - The core of the presentation

This is where you can expand on the key topic of your presentation in more detail. Your audience will be keen to know what you want to tell them, and what impact this could have on them, now or in future.

Make sure the order of your slides is easy to understand and follow and guide them through your points systematically. Think of any questions they might have, then add – or delete – content or whole slides as necessary for more clarity.

Conclusions - Skillfully ending presentations

Conclusion - last page of a book

The conclusion is the most exciting part of your presentation – and it’s quite easy to structure. This is where you address your listeners and formulate your core statement. This structure works well for most presentations:

  1. Summary of points and results
  2. Conclusion – what does this change or imply for us?
  3. Next steps – which concrete actions can we/you take now?
How big should my presentation be? Think of the time slot you have, e.g., 15 minutes to present. Then decide what the scope of the presentation should be.

Common presentation structures

You have two main options when creating your presentation: To mention the core message at the start (pyramid structure) or at the end (funnel structure).

Pyramid structure

If you reveal your core message very early on, your audience will be curious as to how you got there or what exactly you mean by it. This prompts a kind of question-and-answer dialogue, which lets you lead them through the process step by step. This makes it much easier to attract audience attention and ensure everyone follows you on your train of thought. This structure is often used when presenting to C-level managers as it’s seen as a more logical sequence for presenting facts and considerations.
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Pyramid structure example

Jake Scott is the Head of Strategy at sports equipment manufacturer X-Treme Sports. To further accelerate the company’s ambitious growth and become number one on the market, he proposes taking over competitor Fun Sports Enterprises (currently number five on the market). He wants to convince the executive board of this idea at the next strategy workshop.

How could he structure his presentation?

Jake knows the executive board is interested in all ideas that support the ambitious growth target. He also knows the executive board is open to acquisitions and is already looking for possible suitable candidates. So, Jake decides to mention his core message, “We should take over Fun Sports Enterprises,” at the start of the presentation, and then provide answers to the logical follow-up questions. He opts for a pyramidal structure with the respective core statements for each subsection:

Introduction

  • Situation: We have an ambitious growth path.
  • Complication: We won’t reach our targets through organic growth alone.
  • Question: What else could we do?
  • Core statement: We should take over the competitor Fun Sports Enterprises.

Body

Argument 1:

We will only be able to reach our growth target through a larger acquisition.

  • Fact 1.1: Taking market shares off competitors requires a lot of time and resources.
  • Fact 1.2: Excessively fast organic growth would lead to a price war.

Argument 2:

Fun Sports Enterprises is a suitable takeover candidate.

  • Fact 2.1: Fun Sports Enterprises fits with our strategy.
  • Fact 2.2: We expect a low purchase price.
  • Fact 2.3: Both companies can be merged without any major difficulties.

Conclusion

  • Summary of results: We have seen that …
  • Conclusion: That’s why I am proposing we take over Fun Sports Enterprises.
  • Next steps: We will hire an investment bank to help us.

Funnel structure

If you mention the answer at the end, as part of your conclusion, it’s harder to maintain the dialogue with your audience from start to finish. Plus, if you make a key statement at the very end your audience might not be convinced that they can accept it. They’ll be forced to go over your previous statements and will have to consider if they support the core message or not. This structure therefore doesn’t work well when presenting novel ideas or a whole new approach.

Cases where a funnel structure does make sense are when a topic could be controversial or emotionally charged. If you leave your delicate core message until the end, you can avoid heated discussions from cutting into your valuable presenting time – and opportunity to convince anyone – right from the start. In situations like this, you could end your introduction with a (rhetorical) question and then lead your audience through consecutive statements which eventually lead to your concluding core message.

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Funnel structure example

Jake Scott is the Head of Strategy at sports equipment manufacturer X-Treme Sports. To further accelerate the company’s ambitious growth and become number one on the market, he proposes taking over competitor Fun Sports Enterprises (currently number five on the market). He wants to convince the executive board of this idea at the next strategy workshop.

How could he structure his presentation?

Henry knows the executive board is split when it comes to opinions on takeovers. Several past attempts to take over competitors have failed. Several executive board members are especially critical of Fun Sports Enterprises. To ensure his proposal is viewed objectively, Henry decides to only mention it at the end of the presentation. He devises the following structure with the respective core statements for each subsection:

Introduction

  • Situation: We have an ambitious growth path.
  • Complication: We won’t reach our targets through organic growth alone.
  • Question: What else could we do?

Body

Topic 1:

Growth through acquisitions

  • Fact 1.1: Taking market shares off competitors requires a lot of time and resources. Acquisitions are a faster option.
  • Fact 1.2: Excessively fast organic growth would lead to a price war. Acquisitions avoid a price war for market shares.

Argument 1:

A suitable acquisition would enable us to achieve our growth targets quickly.

Topic 2:

Conditions for successful acquisitions

  • Fact 2.1.: The takeover candidate needs to fit with our strategy. Fun Sports Enterprises meets this requirement.
  • Fact 2.2: The purchase price has to be right. Fun Sports Enterprises meets this requirement.
  • Fact 2.3: It must be possible for the two companies to merge without any major difficulties. Fun Sports Enterprises meets this requirement.

Argument 2:

Fun Sports meets all the requirements for successful acquisitions

Conclusion

  • Summary of results: We have seen that …
  • Conclusion: That’s why I am proposing we take over Fun Sports Enterprises.
  • Next steps: We will hire an investment bank to help us.

Quality check for presentations

How do you know if you’ve done a good job with your presentation structure? Use these four quality criteria as a checklist at every structural level:
Statements made at this level are

  1. Consistent
  2. Not overlapping or repetitive
  3. Concise and to the point
  4. Complete, and collectively represent the overarching statement. Every statement is a summary of those below it (at least two points). 

This can help you determine the quality of the points you want to make.

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Summary

When drafting your next presentation, remember, establishing the structure is the most important and often most difficult part of creating it. A clear, tidy structure makes things much easier for your audience to understand and follow, and a whole lot easier for you to present to them.

Always bear in mind at least the basic structural elements and the core message you want your audience to hear. Depending on your content and the audience, you can choose from the different introductory styles. Keep your messages consistent and relevant so your audience will keep up with you, slide by slide.

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