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Your next “mad skill”: Giving outstanding work presentations



Patricia Bailey - published on 07/28/18

Outstanding presenters are not born, but made. Here's how to get started.

Have you ever finished listening to a work presentation and thought to yourself, “Thank God it’s over”? Or have you ever given a presentation and had a sinking feeling that you could have done better?

Most likely, you and your audience were victims to yet another tedious PowerPoint presentation: all 52 slides packed with dense, small-font text. Basically, a data dump.

It doesn’t have to be that way, and there are people who can teach and coach you to give stellar presentations, like Garr Reynolds and Cliff Atkinson, and reams of books to update and refine your skills.

The journey boils down to three basic steps: preparing the content, designing the visuals, and delivering the presentation – or telling the story.

Prepare the content – tell a story and connect

Good, well-organized content is an essential piece of the puzzle, but bear in mind it’s just a starting point.

The best and most memorable presentations tell stories. We need data in our work life, but we are all secretly hankering for a plot with a conflict and a resolution, a hero and a villain, a challenge and a creative solution that saved the day. So when possible, build stories into your presentation, either as an overarching narrative or as specific illustrations of particular data or ideas.

If you’re interested in the art of storytelling in a high-impact visual presentation, try Nancy Duarte’s book Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences. Duarte’s main point is that the outstanding presentation is not just a transfer of information, but an experience that changes the audience. She takes readers behind the curtain and teaches them how to create that experience with a mix of stories and visuals. Or take an online storytelling course from Pixar here. It’s free!

In addition to storytelling, another key aspect is connection. Ask the question: “So what?” and build the answer into your presentation. So you’ve presented some cool data. Great. Now what’s the larger significance? Why is this relevant to your audience, the company, or the industry? How does it connect to your audience in their real lives? People sit up and take notice when the information applies to them.

Design the presentation – fewer words, more images

The best designs seem simple and user-friendly, but there is a lot of thought behind them. The secret key is simplicity and restraint, even minimalism.

Edit ruthlessly: pare down your slides to the most critical information, and display just one idea or data point (or chart) per slide, in very large font. Sometimes, even a single full-size image is perfect.

Avoid complicated animations, sound effects, and cute clipart. It’s better to use photography for a more polished look. Also keep your fonts clean and simple, with a maximum of two different ones. (You can also learn about the effective use of colors here.)

If you are presenting data graphically, make sure you choose the right kind. For example:

  • Line graphs are good for showing multiple trend lines over time, such as various streams of income or investment growth.
  • Pie charts are best for showing percentages of a whole, such as time allocation on a project.
  • Vertical bar charts can be used to show changes over time, but don’t put more than eight bars on your graph or the result will be visual overload.
  • Horizontal bar charts are good for comparing quantities, such as sales per item.

Data visualization practitioners are in high demand today, and some of their graphical representations of big data are breathtaking.

One bestselling resource for learning how to create better data visualizations is Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic. If you want a practical reference tome to keep in your office (and share with your teammates), try The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R. Tufte.

Tell the story – let your enthusiasm shine!

According to Reynolds, the top tips for delivering an excellent presentation are:

  • Show your passion – be enthusiastic!
  • Start strong because first impressions matter.
  • Make eye contact and don’t hide behind the podium. Use your body language to connect.
  • Keep your talk short, bearing in mind that people are often tired and distracted
  • Use a small handheld remote to move your slide presentations forward.
  • Use the “B” key to make your presentation go blank – a useful trick if you need to go off topic for a minute or two.
  • Be courteous and gracious, even if you get difficult or hostile questions.

Other public speaking experts go into greater depth and can offer even more detailed advice, like Brian Tracy in his book Speak to Win: How to Present With Power in Any Situation. His basic premise is that anyone can learn to be a great speaker, given the right tips and enough practice.

If you feel overwhelmed, just start here …

If you are a one-stop shopper and just want one book with everything you need to develop all of your “mad skills” as a presenter, you need Beyond Bullet Points: Using PowerPoint to Tell a Persuasive Story That Gets Results by Cliff Atkinson, hands down. This is the classic reference text for using PowerPoint to tell stories that mix words and visuals in a compelling way, from developing the content to preparing the slides with a “classic storytelling foundation” to actually delivering the presentation in front of a live audience. Translated into a dozen languages so far, it has sold over 100,000 copies in four editions and was voted a Best Book of 2007 by’s editors.

The next time you sit through (or give) another stale, rambling presentation, remember that it doesn’t have to be this way. Learning how to give compelling presentations is not rocket science; there are skills and techniques you can pick up and learn, and if you learn them well enough to share them, your whole team will benefit from it as well.


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