Presentations that work

Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson

We all have to make presentations, technical or non-technical, with or without PowerPoint or its relatives. We all have to listen to them too, so we share the turnoff experience of listening to a bad one. Here’s a simple process for not making bad ones. Many of the ideas come from Leon Goodson, Peter Drucker and innumerable others, but this is what works well for me. I hope it will for you.

First, decide what you want to say. People can’t absorb much information at one sitting. A rough rule is to pick no more than five major statements. I’ll call these your themes, but they should be statements, not questions. Each one should assert something. For example, “Model XT-300” isn’t a theme, but “Model XT-300 overturns on tight curves” could be.

Next, really understand what these themes say. It’s easy to write statements with impressive words but no useful content. Make sure yours aren’t like that. Write them in complete sentences. If something looks hokey then it probably is, so write something else. Think about order: which ones have to be done first so the audience will understand the others? At the end, ask yourself this: If they understand both these statements and the evidence I’ll give for them, will I have done my job?

Now you’ve got not only your themes, but also the structure of your presentation. It has three parts; the time you allocate to each should add up to whatever your talking time is.

Introduction. A clear statement of your themes, with no more detail than is necessary to make clear what each theme asserts.

Body. For each theme, make your case. If you can’t make a convincing case then this shouldn’t have been a theme, so go back and rework the themes. If you can make a case, make it as clearly and simply as you can. Pictures, diagrams and any other graphics are great as long as they contribute directly to the audience’s understanding of your theme. If they do, they can save you precious time when you give the presentation.

This part will have as many sections as there are themes. On the other hand, the length of each is entirely up to you, as long as you don’t exceed the total time available for your presentation. This is where you can make tradeoffs to make the best overall case you can in the time you have.

Closing. A list of your themes again, each accompanied by short statements containing the most important things you want the audience to take away. Use any extra time here: It’s your last chance to anchor your message in your listeners’ minds.

I find it easiest to create the presentation directly from this structure, allocating slides as needed for each topic. For a general presentation, without extremely technical details, I usually estimate two minutes per slide. Along with the total talking time, that gives me the number of slides to work with so that I can make the initial allocation to topics.

The next step is to rehearse. If you’ve got plenty of time plus helpful colleagues, it’s best to do this in front of an audience. If, on the other hand, it’s late in the night before you have to speak, you can still rehearse on your own. Don’t waste time by flipping through the slides and thinking of what you’re going to say for each. Instead, deliver the presentation just as you would with the audience, saying for each slide exactly what you’ll say to them in the way you’ll say it.

You’ll get stuck on some slides. That shows the rehearsal is doing what it’s supposed to. You need either to change that slide or to figure out how to describe what’s on it. That might mean reallocating time, thus possibly changing other slides too. After you’ve fixed all the sticky places, do the rehearsal from beginning to end to be sure it fits within your talking time.

The last step is a simple contingency plan for what to do if you have less time than you thought you’d have. It’s easiest to start by saying, “Since I have only 20 minutes instead of 30, I’ll present less detail on X and Y than planned, but I’m happy to send the full set of slides to anyone who wants them.” The session chair might say, “No, go ahead and take 30 minutes,” in which case you’re off the hook; otherwise, do as you’ve said. All you have to know in advance is what X and Y will be.

If you’ve done all of this, you should be in a very good position to:

  • give the presentation within the allotted time;
  • sound knowledgeable and self-assured, even if you don’t feel that way;
  • use your listeners’ time well; and
  • give them a good opportunity to learn something that they can retain after they walk out of the room.

And if you can do that, you should feel good about it.

Stephen Robinson ( is president of INFORMS.