Strategic Comms, Part 28: Key Tips for a Great Presentation

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(This is the 28th in a continuing series on strategic communications. Click here for earlier segments)

By Owen Eagan, The Saint Consulting Group

We’ve all seen one – a presentation that lulled us to sleep or left us scratching our heads because we either didn’t know or couldn’t remember what the message was.  But what makes a great presentation?  That is, how do you successfully engage your audience and convey your key messages?

First, any discussion of public speaking needs to include Aristotle’s three types of persuasive appeals: ethos (an appeal based on the credibility of the speaker), logos (an appeal based on the logic of an argument) and pathos (an appeal based on the use of emotions).  Moreover, Aristotle believed that ethos was the most persuasive device.  But ethos is established not only by the background and experience of your speaker but by maintaining credibility throughout your speech through comprehensive research.

Next, to make your presentation memorable, Chip and Dan Heath, the authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, claim that a sticky idea needs to be simple, unexpected, concrete, credible and emotional, and that they are best depicted by stories (which creates the acronym SUCCES).  One of my favorite tips that relates to public speaking is their discussion on the “gap theory” of knowledge.

This theory states that our curiosity and interest is piqued when there is a gap in our knowledge.  This is why we always need to know how that bad movie ends, why mysteries are so popular and why news shows have developed a knowledge gap approach.  This is an extremely effective technique for getting your audience’s attention in the introduction to your presentation.

For instance, when I give presentations on land use issues, I usually begin with a question such as, “How many Americans do you think have actively opposed a real estate development project in his or her community?”  This question usually sparks a lot of conversation and generates a wide variety of responses.  (The answer is nearly 1 in 5.)

Techniques to gain your audience’s attention such as these should also be used throughout your presentation.  According to Dr. John Media, the author of Brain Rules (a Harvard Business Review “Breakthrough Idea of 2008”), we don’t pay attention to boring things.  Dr. Medina claims that after 10 minutes an audience’s attention steadily drops.  Therefore, he recommends that you do something emotionally relevant at each 10-minute mark to regain attention.  Or, you could re-pique your audience’s curiosity with another question or startling statistic.

Another communication caveat noted by Dr. Medina is relating too much information.  On this point, Guy Kawasaki offers a few good tips for reducing your content with “The 10/20/30 Rule of PowerPoint” (see  Specifically, he recommends that a presentation should have only 10 slides, last no more than 20 minutes and use no font smaller than 30 points.

But to enhance recall, we need to return to another recommendation by Dr. Medina.  He states that you’ll get 3x better recall for visual information than for oral and you’ll get 6x better recall for information that’s simultaneously oral and visual.  Therefore, you need to incorporate compelling visuals into your presentations to reinforce your key messages.  Garr Reynolds’ blog called Presentation Zen offers a fantastic PowerPoint summary of some of Dr. Medina’s rules along with some great illustrations of his own (see

Also in regard to recall, we can never underestimate the importance of repetition.  Though there are different types of memory and each has different lifespans, Dr. Medina states that your brain can hold about seven pieces of information for about 30 seconds.  So unless that information is repeated it will disappear.  And, though the key to retention is information presented in timed intervals, Dr. Medina also claims that memory can be enhanced through the use of meaningful examples that can be elaborately encoded, especially through personal experience.  This is likely why the use of schema and stories are so effective.

As you develop your key messages and think about creative ways to convey them, you also need to know your audience.  Conducting an audience analysis will help you stay audience-centered.  That is, you need to know the demographic and psychographic profiles of your audience so that you can better understand how familiar your audience is with your subject and any other relevant data that might affect their perceptions.  For instance, an audience’s professional, cultural and generational background can all influence how messages are received.

Finally, there are numerous reasons to rehearse your presentation.  First, you should always rehearse your presentation before your colleagues or peers so that you can solicit feedback from others.  You should rehearse to the point where you can deliver it extemporaneously as research shows that techniques such as making eye contact builds trust and enhances credibility.  In addition, a conversational, and perhaps interactive, style is more engaging for your audience.

Though you’re likely aware that you need to avoid industry jargon, you also need to be aware of the “Curse of Knowledge,” which Chip and Dan Heath discuss in their book.  That is, the more expertise we develop on a subject, the harder it is to communicate in terms that are not abstract.  Lastly, be sure to minimize any disfluencies and distracting nonverbal communication.  Though the Mehrabian Rule is often misinterpreted (i.e., not all communication is 7% verbal, 38% vocal and 55% visual), non-verbal communication is nonetheless important.

In summary, following are 10 tips for a developing a great presentation.

1.      Establish Your Credibility

Be sure to establish your ethos, or credibility, in your introduction by citing your credentials and developing your credibility throughout your presentation with a comprehensive analysis of your subject.

 2.      Use Evidence to Support Your Arguments and Counterarguments

In regard to logos, or building your logical arguments, use facts, statistics and evidence from credible sources and use as many independent sources as possible.  Also, you may want to incorporate counterarguments if there are myths or misinformation surrounding the issue you’re addressing.

3.      Utilize Stories

Using stories is an effective way to generate pathos, or an emotional appeal.  Stories also make issues easier to understand and remember.  President Reagan was known for his effective use of stories as he famously illustrated in his Pointe du Hoc speech, stating, “These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs.”  (See

4.      Grab Your Audience’s Attention

As we discussed, one effective way to do this is to create a knowledge gap with the use of a question.  You could either answer this question immediately or at the end of your speech.  You could also use a startling statistic or compelling story.

5.      Keep Your Audience Engaged

Dr. John Medina, the author of Brain Rules, states that you need to constantly reengage your audience as their attention steadily drops after 10 minutes.  As a result, incorporate ways of grabbing the audience’s attention at 10-minute intervals throughout your speech by using the knowledge gap technique or another emotional ploy.

6.      Avoid Information Overload

Providing too much information will virtually guarantee that little from your presentation will be understood or retained.  As a guideline, use Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 Rule of PowerPoint – that is, 10 slides, 20 minutes and 30-point font.

7.      Incorporate Visuals to Enhance Recall

As Dr. Medina found, recall is 3x better for visual versus oral information and 6x better for both oral and visual information.  Hence, you should reinforce your key messages with visuals whenever possible.

8.      Repeat to Remember

As Dr. Medina states, you need to repeat to remember.  However, rather than just repeat information, allow your audience to elaborately encode information through the use of real-world examples.

9.      Conduct an Audience Analysis

You need to conduct an audience analysis so that you can better understand how familiar audience members are with your subject and what predispositions they might have.  Knowing the demographic and psychographic profiles of your audience will help you tailor your messages accordingly.

10.  Rehearse for Several Reasons

Among the reasons to rehearse your presentation are to (1) solicit feedback from your peers and colleagues, (2) deliver your speech extemporaneously, (3) avoid the “Curse of Knowledge,” and (4) minimize disfluencies and distracting nonverbal communication.

Owen Eagan is a Senior Consultant for Saint Consulting, an international management consulting firm specializing in land use politics.  He is also an adjunct faculty member at Emerson College, the nation’s only four-year institution dedicated exclusively to communications and the performing arts. Email

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