How to make your presentations great…and why it matters

In the last seven weeks I have watched and/or commented on well over 200 presentations! Most of these were prepared and delivered by teams striving for iterative improvement, including the National Science Foundation I-Corps team on which I served as the business mentor. Others were ones I watched or listened to, including lectures on customer discovery methodology from NSF I-Corps faculty at Georgia Tech, students in the innovation and entrepreneurship class that I co-teach, and students participating in the UMass Innovation Challenge. Formats differed; some used PowerPoint style projected slides, while others were web-based, videos, and pitches unsupported by media of any kind. Whew!

Seeing so many presentations in such a short period gave me new perspective. In support of helping my students and mentees (and, of course, myself) transform good presentations into great ones, I felt compelled to expand the expert resources I typically cite as well as the advice I offer. Here are some points I plan to keep in mind for future presentations, pitches, and talks:

What is the story we want to tell? A well-crafted story creates a sense of urgency that commands the attention of an audience and engages them throughout. The best of these can also make a presentation more memorable. Only after an audience is engaged can its members be persuaded, influenced or transformed.

Reflecting on the story to be told also offers an opportunity for those creating the presentation to review the work and experiences that underlie the presentation. Nancy Duarte offers great insight into leveraging the story form in her TED Talk on “The secret structure of great talks.” (Thanks to fellow I-Corps mentor Goran Matijasevic for sharing it.)

How can we go beyond data to insight? The ways in which data are represented can make the difference between an audience that tunes out or turns on. Showing tables of tiny, unreadable numbers or reciting lists of complicated facts will get folks checking their email in the blink of an eye – even when the numbers are compelling. But when used effectively, data can prompt immediate insight and change the way your audience understands a topic. An outstanding example of this is Hans Rosling’s TED Talk on “Stats that reshape your worldview.” Edward Tufte’s books and workshops provide great tools and inspiration for thinking about how to represent data in meaningful ways. A side benefit of Duarte’s talk is the outstanding example of data representation she provides in her analysis of great talks.

What physical tools and factors can we use? Compelling props or a prototype can make the abstract more tangible. Tufte uses rare books in his workshops to underscore the depth of his work and the history it builds upon. Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on “Body language shapes who you are” suggests last-minute preparations that can increase a speaker’s ability to command attention while using story telling, physical examples, and data to give a great talk.

Do all the parts work as a whole? I have long been mindful of the importance of good practices for constructing slides and presentations. Depending on the audience and type of presentation, various guides help. Here’s one you’ll find helpful.   This article by Patricia Gosling and Bart Noordem is good too. Although the two are intended for different domains, there is remarkable overlap. Going beyond these, Duarte’s talk makes me more aware than ever of the interaction between what is said and what is seen.

Which parts of the presentation may need to work independently? If there is a chance that slides will be posted, ideally they will be constructed (or reconstructed) to stand alone. For this purpose, it might make sense to consider adding notes to and eliminating animation from the “live” version. Links and contact information also take on fresh import.

Looking at these questions, it might be tempting to say that great presentations are too difficult. Nevertheless I’m resolved to try to do better and urge you to do so as well. Here’s my motivation. Many presentations come at a point where a great deal has already been invested in a project. To short change presentation preparation in the home stretch overlooks the tremendous time and effort that has often gone before – doing the “real work” – and puts that entire investment at risk when just a bit more attention can make the difference between ordinary and great.

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Karen Utgoff, principal of Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting, is a market-oriented business strategist based in Amherst, MA. Learn more at

© Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting 2012. All rights reserved.


  1. JC says:

    Some great links here, including really awesome TED talks. Thanks!

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