How I write presentations
I’ve been asked by a number of people how I do this, so here’s a few tips.
I’ve delivered more than a thousand presentations over the years. Some for small audiences, and occasionally for thousands of people. This article isn’t about the act of doing a presentation. That is a whole other topic for another time. While the delivery of a presentation is a big part of it, the world’s best presenter wouldn’t be very effective if they were given bad content to deliver.
The very first thing I make sure I’m clear on, is the audience. What’s their background? What industries are they from? What expertise do they have? What do they want out of the session?
I’ve delivered many presentations to cybersecurity audiences who will understand every acronym I throw at them. Knowing that really changes the content and tone of my presentation compared to situations where the audience knows very little about security.
Once you understand the audience, figure out what you are really trying to tell them. What is that key message you want them to take away? Have that key message be supported by ideally three, and no more than five, supporting points in your conclusion or summary.
The key message could be anything, but it must bring your audience value. Otherwise, they’ve just wasted their time listening to you. It could be a lesson. An insight. A different perspective. An action. Something that challenges them and expands their horizons.
How do you want your audience to feel? Happy? Enlightened? Inspired? Motivated? Angry? Challenged? Working out how you want them to feel will help you set the tone.
When in doubt, go with positivity. I’d think very carefully about trying to make an audience angry or challenged, except under certain circumstances. For example, if you are trying to drive home a message about climate change and want to inspire action in your audience, perhaps anger is the feeling you want to leave them with.
I like to think about structuring a presentation like I would a debate. It’s not about being objectionable or combative. All you should be trying to do is build enough supporting points to convince your audience of your key message.
Like any good debater, you must be balanced. Try not to be too one-sided. Present the counterpoint. And get ahead of any pushback you might get.
I usually use the start of a presentation to set this context, look at both sides, then take a position on what you believe the right way to look at things should be. Spend the middle of your presentation arguing your case. Then bring it home at the end with a strong conclusion and be clear about the points you are fighting for and why.
A presentation full of your opinions without any independent supporting evidence is going to make your task more difficult. Audiences want to be convinced that you are not making everything up.
Without evidence, you are essentially just ranting and raving about what you think, which may or may not be right. At least that’s what the audience will think if you have nothing to back your points up.
Evidence can be anything including data points taken from studies to quotes and opinions gathered from authoritative sources and individuals. Your case is much more compelling if you aren’t the only one saying it. Even better if there are other smart people who agree, and independent data points to solidify your arguments with facts.
Strictly speaking, you don’t need slides. But when used properly, they are useful.
We’ve all seen really terrible slides. Don’t be one of those people. Where possible, my slides will be heavier on pictures, and light on words. If I can keep each slide to a single word, I will. If not, I will try to keep it to one sentence.
Sometimes, you will need more detailed slides, which is ok provided you break them up across your deck with more minimalistic slides. If every slide in your deck is packed with words, you’re not doing it right.
Resist the urge to use your slides as a crutch to remember what you are saying. The best presentations are the ones where the presenter isn’t even looking at the slide. They simply know what’s on it.
Here’s the main thing to remember. Slides are for the audience. They are not for you, the presenter.
Good presenters literally write their presentation out. Don’t try to “wing it”. Ever. Unless you want to suck during your presentation.
For big occasions, I will literally write every word out like I would a full article. I rarely end up doing the presentation verbatim. But I try to rehearse it by reading what I’ve written. It also helps you get the flow right, and iron out any awkward transitions or nonsensical adjacent points.
At other times, I will simply write my presentation out as a set of dot points. And when I rehearse the presentation, I use the dot points as a way to ensure I cover the key parts of the argument I’m making.
When writing a presentation, you don’t have to try to be Steve Jobs. What you are ultimately trying to do is figure out what it is about the content you’re delivering that is different and unique to what the audience has heard before.
If you can make the figurative light bulb above people’s heads go “ding”, that’s what they’ll remember you for. As you craft your presentation, try to inject a few light-bulb-moments. Make sure you build up to them. But be very clear as you are building your presentation which sections and points support those moments.
Most importantly, your presentation is a story. Treat it with that level of respect. If you don’t craft a compelling, logical, cohesive narrative, what you really have is a bunch of random points that you strung together.
The audience can always tell when a presenter has taken a bunch of pre-built slides and simply inserted their favourite ones into the deck they intend to use.
That’s not storytelling. That’s: “Let me tell you about all these random things I found because someone is making me do this presentation. Kthxbye.”
If you’ve read this far, I hope the key message you’ll take away is that you need to prepare. There are no shortcuts no matter how seasoned a presenter you are. Far too many people think they can stand up there and simply talk “off the cuff”. Sure, you can do that. But you will probably not do very well. Put in the work. Your audience will thank you for it.
Ian Yip is the CEO of Avertro, a venture-backed cybersecurity software company. Avertro CyberHQ is a Cyber Management Decision System that helps leaders manage the business of cyber using defensible insights to determine what is essential.