These days, when ‘death by PowerPoint’ is widely accepted as an occupational hazard of working in business, it can be hard to visualise what a good – let alone a great – presentation might look like. In meeting rooms up and down the UK, densely packed slides are being projected by presenters who behave more like curators than speakers, while their audiences openly work (or play) on their laptops.
It doesn’t have to be like this!
If you’re wondering how to write a presentation that people will actually pay attention to, here are some guidelines. If you’d like personalised assistance with preparing your presentation, or more general (but still personalised) coaching in how to create and deliver excellent presentations, please see the Public Speaking Coaching page and get in touch to discuss how I can help you.
How to Write a Presentation
At the risk of appearing pedantic, I want to start by reframing the brief. If you want to make an impact and enjoy the experience, the question we need to be asking is not how to write a presentation but how to create one. The difference is far more than semantic. Writing a presentation suggests writing sentences and it suggests you settle down to write it in the way you would a report or an essay. I recommend a different approach.
Begin by working out what you’re going to say
This may sound obvious, but in reality most people’s instinct when starting to prepare a presentation is to open up PowerPoint and make some slides. If you do it this way, it will be extremely difficult for you to produce a presentation that your audience will listen to and remember.
Instead, take some rough paper and list the points you want to make. The ‘rough’ part is important because you must have no qualms about tearing it up and starting again. Many times. It takes a lot of time and thought to map out a good presentation.
So how do you decide what to say?
The best starting point is the audience. Put yourself in their position. Who are they? What do they already know about this subject? What do they need to learn from your presentation?
Assess the level of detail you can go into in the time available and remember: less is more! Overloading the audience with information is a sure-fire way to lose them. Identify say three (depending a bit on the length of your presentation) key messages and make sure you put them across, clearly and without padding.
Don’t write sentences, just a word or two to remind you of each point. Hone the wording by speaking out loud.
Once you’ve gathered the content, give your presentation structure
Again, it sounds obvious, yet so often presentations are thrown together without much in the way of a planned structure. Give your talk a shape; a narrative arc; a beginning, a middle and an end.
Only at this stage do you think about slides
After you’ve worked out where you’re going with your presentation, you can turn your mind to how you’re going to illustrate it – and by this I mean illustrate in the sense of displaying visuals to reinforce and illuminate your message, not just giving the audience something to look at while you talk.
As I’ve said in my post about presentation skills tips, if you can possibly avoid it, don’t try to make your slides do triple service as illustrations, notes for you and a handout for the audience. Separate out these three and you’ll be well on the way to success.
If you have the freedom to do so, consider using a medium other than PowerPoint, to see if it suits you and your context better. There are direct alternatives, such as Prezi, and old-fashioned-yet-remarkably-effective-if-properly-used solutions such as flipcharts and whiteboards. Technologically advanced visual aids are not inherently more impressive than the non-tech variety – it’s how you use them that matters.
Design your slides to support your talk
A picture famously speaks a thousand words and, when the purpose of your presentation is to inform the audience, some graphics can help a lot. If you’re a doctor giving a presentation about the spleen, for example, it makes sense to project a photo or diagram of a spleen, so you can be sure everyone has the correct mental image of what you’re talking about. If your presentation is about your department’s quarterly results, a few graphs and charts will almost certainly tell the story more clearly and succinctly than you would be able to do without visual back-up.
Keep text to an absolute minimum, really just the odd word. If your delivery is right, I don’t think you even need bullet points on your slides; text on the screen is a distraction from your spoken words. But if you insist on putting in bullet points, keep them short and set PowerPoint to reveal them one at a time, so the audience doesn’t get ahead of you.
When the purpose of your presentation is to persuade, clear, strong visual images have a powerful impact, as discussed in this article about American lawyers’ presentations.
Good slides are simple, clean and uncluttered.
Refine and polish your presentation
Although I said at the outset that the right question is not how to write a presentation but how to create one, your finished draft is, as with a written text, just that: a draft. As you say it out loud over and over again, you’ll find better ways to express your ideas, you’ll see connections that maybe involve restructuring your presentation, you may decide you’re trying to pack too much in and the presentation needs to be thinned out a bit.
Just as a novelist may delete a chapter to enhance the overall book, be prepared to sacrifice slides in the editing process, even ones you’ve spent a long time working on. If they don’t contribute to clarity and impact, if the point they’re illustrating isn’t quite what, on reflection, you really want to say, be ruthless and scrap them.
Check what your slides (would) look like from the back of the auditorium
When you’re happy with your presentation, take your slides and project them on to a screen in privacy, Assess how effective they will be for the audience, particularly those at the back. Do the colours stand out and contrast in the way you intended? Are the lines thick and dark enough to show from a distance?
Then work on your delivery
Creating the presentation is half the battle. The other half is how to put it across to the audience. You’ll find lots of advice to help you with that on the rest of this website. For personalised coaching in both aspects, you can contact me here.