Presentations play an important role in marketing and business development. Whether speaking at a conference, making a new business pitch, meeting with a client, or hosting a webinar, presentations can be a true differentiator—for better or worse.

But as important as presentations are, they can often be treated as an afterthought. And many marketers and business leaders settle for mediocre presentations at best and dreadful presentations at worst. The fact is, even though we’re not all capable of making inspiring presentations like Steve Jobs, most presentations could be better! So here are some simple ideas to help you create more compelling and effective presentations.

1. Consider the setting upfront

A critical factor to consider before developing a presentation is to take into account the setting of the presentation. Is it in-person or virtual? A keynote address or a breakout session? Small room or large room? Casual environment or formal? Whatever the setting, your approach to developing and giving the presentation should factor in the unique setting and respond with an appropriate approach.

2. Spend time developing great content

This should go without saying, but content is the core of your presentation. While all the other ideas below will help to make your content more impactful, a great presentation starts and ends with great content. So don’t shortchange your audience by shortchanging the effort you spend on developing compelling content. You’ll need to invest many hours researching, writing and brainstorming if you aim to create a presentation that your audience will appreciate.

3. Start with an outline

Don’t start with PowerPoint or Keynote! Many people start their presentations by getting right to creating slides.  But you need to remember that your presentation is not your slides; your slides only support your presentation. So it’s best to start by creating a simple outline of the main points you want to make in each act and go from there. The key is to get your main ideas on paper and organize your thoughts before you start creating slides. You’ll gain a better understanding of the flow of your presentation and what content needs to be added, omitted or reordered.

4. Follow the 3-act structure

While not every presentation can easily fit into the 3-act structure, it’s generally a good method to follow.

Act 1 – The first act is the introduction, the setup of your presentation. This is where you grab the audience’s attention early on, giving them an expectation of what they are going to get out of it and a reason to keep listening. A compelling story or illustration can serve as a powerful opener.

Additional thoughts on the opening: You’ve got mere seconds to hook your audience, so open with a bang! Absolutely, positively, DO NOT be salesy or self-deprecating in your opening (or at any point in your presentation for that matter). And unless you want to lose the audience’s attention and respect out of the gate, don’t open with those token and boring slides that talk about you, your firm and all those accolades. Jump right into the real content!

Act 2 – The middle act is where you sustain their interest. Typically you are detailing a problem and offering a solution, while educating and informing along the way. It’s here where you really build your case and sell the benefits. This is where you’ll want to provide compelling examples, data, statistics, etc. to support your points.

Act 3 – The final act is where you resolve the problem, recap and remind the audience of the high points of your presentation. Then leave the audience with a call-to-action. What is the audience supposed to take away from your presentation? That should be clearly defined in your closing act. Also, a final story or illustration and questions from the audience are a great way to draw the presentation to a close.

5. Have one main point for each slide

It’s best to make only one main point for each slide. Be concise and coherent and don’t try to cover too much ground on a single slide. Instead, keep your slide (and your words) focused on hammering home the main point. But always use brevity; once you have made your point, move on. You don’t want to lose the audience by belaboring a point once it has been made.

6. Avoid using bullets

Nothing gets abused in presentations more than bullets. A slide full of bullets will undoubtedly ensure that your audience will stop listening to you and instead read what’s on the slide. The fact is, they can read faster than you can make your points. So remember, they are there to listen to you, not to read your slides. Bullets might be helpful as notes, but there’s little reason to include them on your slides.

7. Less is more

Keep in mind, your slides are there to support your presentation, not BE your presentation. So it’s best to always keep things as simple as they can be, because your slides are slides, not Word documents! Many presenters have entirely too much text on a slide and include way too many visuals, leaving audience members dizzy wondering what they’re looking at. And don’t design your PowerPoint presentation to be a leave behind. If you want to give your audience a substantive leave-behind, that should be treated as an entirely different document altogether.

8. Use large text

Since you are simplifying your slides, avoiding the use of bullets and only making one major point for each slide, amplify your points by using large text. Using a larger font size will not only make it easier for your audience to read the slide, it will also help them retain the information. And depending on the screen and room, your audience is probably going to have a hard time reading the text if you use a font size any smaller than 24pt. Ideally, each slide will only contain a few words that underscore your point.

9. Include captivating visuals

It’s been documented that messages accompanied by pictures are retained at a much more significant rate than words alone. This is called the “picture superiority effect” and studies indicate that including powerful visuals can increase information retention by 55% – 65% or more. Avoid using cheesy clip art or overly generic stock art. And absolutely, positively don’t use watermarked or copyrighted images that you found online! Similar to including one main point on each slide, one large and powerful photo is preferred over several smaller photos. The key is to choose images or graphics that convey the message you’re trying to make, in the most compelling way possible.

10. Utilize data wisely

Data can be a good thing or a bad thing in a presentation, depending on how wisely it’s used. Try to avoid the use of excel charts and graphs, as these are nearly impossible to make sense of on a screen and will surely distract your audience from listening to you. If you’re going to use complex data, try to find a way to simplify the numbers, using more of an infographic style than a typical Excel chart style.

Also, while statistics can certainly add to your presentation, be sure you always source your stats and find the most recent information possible. Using a 10-year-old statistic or quoting statistics without a source will detract from your credibility.

11. Have a solid, professionally designed slide deck

Regardless of how great the quality of your content may be, a poor slide deck design can be distracting and erode credibility—even if your firm is not in a “creative” industry. Design still matters and can help or hurt your presentation, so your slide deck design should be professional. The template you use should be custom (don’t use the templates included with PowerPoint or Keynote), branded (but not over branded), and have a clean and organized layout. Avoid the temptation to overuse animation for transitions. If your firm doesn’t have design capabilities, consider hiring someone to design a custom presentation and establish a design system for the various components of your presentation.

12. Don’t read it

If you don’t use bullets and have only one major point on each slide, you aren’t going to be able to turn around and read the slides like many often do during a typical presentation. But if you use notes, be sure you know the presentation well enough to avoid being glued to them. Not only is listening to someone read their way through a presentation boring, it gives the impression that you aren’t as knowledgeable on the subject as you should be.  Instead, use your notes for cues, not as the narrative for your presentation.

13. Engage with the audience

If you want to make a connection with your audience and have them pay attention to what you are telling them, you need to be engaging.  Here are some tips:

  • Do you best to be and stay relaxed
  • Show your personality, passion and enthusiasm about the topic
  • Make eye contact with specific members of the audience, even in virtual meetings
  • Project your voice; a notch more than you think you should
  • Move around the stage and interact with the audience
  • Don’t talk too fast, but don’t talk too slow either
  • Take a brief pause after making a substantial statement

Following these tips will help you appear confident and comfortable to the audience, making you seem more knowledgeable.

14. Treat it like a conversation

Nothing is more annoying (and boring) than a presenter that simply recites facts and information in a pontificating way. You don’t want to talk down to your audience, but you don’t want to treat the presentation like a 9th grade oral book report either. Instead, act like you are having a conversation with your audience. The best presentations I’ve ever sat through are the ones that made me feel like the presenter was talking with me and to me, not at me. So try to speak as though you are speaking to only one person at a time. A good way to set the right conversational tone is by starting with open-ended questions to engage the audience at the beginning.

15. Tell compelling stories

The best presenters in the world are also incredible storytellers.  One of the best ways to engage an audience and make a lasting impression is to use stories and illustrations as a way to bring context and clarity to your points. Stories are usually much more engaging than raw information.  So look for stories, examples, illustrations, case studies, etc. to help bring your points to life.

16. Make them laugh (a little)

Not surprisingly, the best presenters, in addition to being great storytellers, are also generally funny people.  So look for ways to inject some (clean and safe) humor into your presentation. Making your audience occasionally laugh will keep them alert, entertained and more likely to keep listening to your message. Now I’m not in any way insinuating that you should be a part-time stand-up comedian.  But at the same time, in addition to educating your audience, it’s always good to make them laugh every once in a while.

17. Don’t under OR over prepare

Don’t go into a presentation under-prepared! You should know your topic backwards and forwards and be able to present without an over dependence on notes.  Similarly, don’t over-prepare either. Remember, you are having a conversation with the audience, not reciting a speech. So while you should spend a lot of time in preparation, don’t rehearse too much or memorize what you are going to say. You want your presentation to sound natural and organic, not like a canned political speech.

18. Get the technology right

All the hard work that goes into a creating a great presentation can be derailed by technological glitches. Don’t let yourself be a victim! Here are some things to consider:

  • Bring your own laptop to run the presentation
  • Come with every possible adapter/cable you may need for A/V
  • Invest in a quality remote and frequently change batteries
  • Have a spare power cord and/or extension cord handy
  • Avoid overusing animations, audio and video
  • Don’t depend on web-based content; embed directly from your laptop
  • Get there early, click through your deck and test the microphone

19. Adapt to the virtual environment (when required)

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has ushered in a new era of virtual meetings, conferences, workshops and interviews. Virtual presentations are a completely different dynamic and require a different strategy, approach, pace and delivery. Here are some of the things you need to think about:

  • Slide deck – Keep in mind that your slides will be seen on much smaller screens than what you typically find at in-person presentations.
  • Equipment and technology – Be sure you have a high-quality camera and microphone, as well as sufficient internet bandwidth to stream the presentation.
  • On-camera appearance – Being on camera means your audience is going to get a much more “up close and personal” view of you. Be sure to look directly into the camera and position yourself so that only your upper chest and face are visible. Make sure the room is well lit and eliminate any background distractions.
  • Energy and Enthusiasm – Just like on-screen personalities exude energy and enthusiasm, it’s important for you to as well. Amp it up a bit more than normal and remember to keep up the enthusiasm until you’ve logged off.
  • Engagement – The virtual audience is much more difficult to read and keep attentive. While the specifics will depend on your particular situation, building in engagement activities such as live polling, interactive Q&A, and audience input can be helpful for engagement.

Don’t wing it!

There are many other ways to create more compelling presentations and we’ve only scratched the surface with these 19. But the takeaway is, don’t treat presentations like an afterthought. Instead, adequately prepare and follow these simple tips to make your presentations more impactful.