How To Present So People will Hear

You probably have to make presentations, but does the audience hear what you’re saying?  And do they believe it?

Based on my experience in investment banking and strategy consulting, I’ve put together a 3-part series on how to prepare memos and presentations that people will read and believe. Part 1 was How to Write a Memo That People Will Actually Read, Part 2 is this article, and Part 3 will be How To Add Powerful (and Legal) Images To Your Presentations.

I see a lot of pitches for investment, and I’m sorry to report that many people do not have a good grasp of the basic of an effective business presentation.  This blog should serve as a checklist for your next presentation.

Before beginning, you should be clear on whether you’re writing slides for presentation or slides for reading.  If you are preparing slides for reading, you can and should write in full, detailed sentences.  For a presentation, you should put as little text as possible on each page, so that your readers can focus on you, the presenter, rather than the pixels in front of them.

I’m assuming that you’re already familiar with the advanced functions of Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, Keynote, or whatever tool you’re using.  All of these document-creation tools have many undiscovered functions that most content creators do not use…to their detriment.

First, all slide titles should answer a journalist’s six key questions:

1)      Who?  Includes where the data is sourced from if applicable.

Get invites to exclusive events, jobs, and research.

2)      What?  Specify subject and, especially, units of chart.

3)      Where?  Indicate location of data or study.

4)      Why?  Show how the slide moves the presentation forward.  How does it relate to the presentation’s themes?  For example, “NET INCREASE IN SOFT DRINK CONSUMPTION” is more informative than “SOFT DRINK CONSUMPTION, 1979-1992.”

5)      When?  Indicate for what time periods the chart is appropriate.

6)      How? If possible, show how data was collected.  For example, whether the data shows consumption of soft drinks, vs. amount of soft drinks entering distribution channels, will affect the interpretation of the numbers.

Label your charts clearly.

  • Chart axes should be labeled.  Tick marks should be outside of the graph, not crossing the axis
  • Everyone has his or her own style of formatting chart title; what is most important is to be consistent within one presentation deck. Here’s a sample 6-part structure that can be used for almost any slide, and addresses the 6 questions above:
Headline Car sales per capita have dropped significantly due to recession, cultural change, and growth of car-sharing.
What the chart actually measures U.S. Car Sales Per Capita
How the data is being split, e.g., by category or by state by gender
Year(s) 1980-2012
Units in parentheses (M)
Source National Automotive Dealers Association, , as of August 6, 2013.  Based on reports from individual auto dealers.

Consider your audience and venue when structuring your slide style.

  • Use the largest font sizes you can: 18 and up.  No one ever complained about fonts being too big.
  • Use as few words as possible on each slide, or better yet, use images instead of words
  • Use fewer slides to leave more time for discussion instead. Guy Kawasaki recommends a maximum of 10 slide for 20 minutes
  • Use slide trackers (which show where you are in a presentation) for longer presentations.  You can see many examples in my presentations.
  • Minimize technical terms, unless you know for sure all of the audience is within your specific industry and will understand all of the terms.

Lead with a clear and compelling message.

  • Slides should tell a story: Storyboarding your slides prior to making them is a good way to save time and ensure consistency of message
  • Titles should also be informative and move the story forward. For example, “Net increase in coffee consumption” is more informative than “coffee consumption, 1979-1992”
  • A slide should answer any questions immediately raised by the slide.  For example, if a volume number looks extremely high but is actually correct, explain it in a footnote.
  • If applicable, use a visual mnemonic to help the audience retain your message

Design your slides for maximum clarity.

  • Make the slides as minimalist as possible.
  • Make sure your images are not unclear when projected onto a big screen. The safest bet is to go for the highest resolution that you can find
  • Animation between slides can be distracting, so keep animation to a minimum unless necessary.  Also, many people print out slides which makes your animation irrelevant.  I personally never use animation; it’s extra work for too little payoff.
  • Color rules: Always use dark text on light backgrounds and light text on dark backgrounds. Often, using highly contrasting colors can cause eye strain on the audience, so go for light gray on black and vice versa.  Be careful of color combinations such as red on green; about 7% of all men are color-blind to some extent.

Consistency, consistency, consistency.

  • Use master (template) slides to standardize slide layouts
  • All repeated figures must be internally consistent. For example, frequently the company’s annual volume or revenue appears on multiple slides. That number must always be the same.
  • All titles and terms (company names, brand names, etc.) must be spelled and punctuated consistently.

Tidy numbers and all other data.

  • Round up/down very large numbers. E.g. instead of writing there are 11,233 employees, round to 11,000
  • Be consistent with decimal points and abbreviations used across the deck. Abbreviations are preferred, as they declutter a slide; just state in the chart title or in a footnote that an abbreviation is being used.
  • Use the standard abbreviations for numbers, e.g., K = Thousand, M = Million, B = Billion.
  • Always differentiate clearly hard numbers from estimate, either in a footnote or with an ‘est.’ for each figure which is an estimate
  • Always show sources for data in a footnote, and explain any anomalously high or low data point in a footnote
  • All % numbers should add up to 100. If it does not add up due to a rounding issue, then either footnote or increase your units of precision used.
  • When a slide title or axis indicates that the units are dollars or percentages, you should not have a dollar sign or a percentage sign after each number. They clutter the slide.

Name your file for version control.

I recommend name each file with the suffix in the format yyyymmdd, in order to track the most current version of a given file.

Run the presentation through the final checklist.
Use the following “CLEAN” checklist to proofread a slide.

  • Consistent:   Assume the client will read the flow with a calculator in hand, checking that every number ties with every other number.  All repeated figures must be internally consistent.  Percentage breakdowns should sum to 100; sources of change stairsteps should add up to the delta; slide segments should tie with the total.  All titles and units must have a consistent format across slides.  And of course the formatting must be internally consistent.
  • Language:  All titles and terms (company names, brand names, etc.) must be spelled and punctuated accurately and consistently.  Is the language unambiguous?
  • Elegance: Is the slide elegant, clean, and attractive? Does it follow your firm’s style template?
  • Auditable: Have you included a sources line for each data point, so the reader can easily audit the accuracy of your work? Have you indicated precisely the time period and geography of all data sets? Have you included the complete file name somewhere in the presentation?  Look for unusually low or high numbers; anything that looks at all strange should be double-checked with your original data source, and footnoted if appropriate.  It’s far better for you to notice your errors/issues than for someone else to do so.
  • Next Steps: Make it clear what you want the reader to do.

This is an excerpt from my book, To University and Beyond: Launch Your Career in High Gear

Thanks to Justine Chan and Aishwarya Iyer for editing and research help on this article. Cross-posted in Forbes. Image credit.

Get invites to exclusive events and research.