Presentation fast fix #1: structure your talk

Debra Jasper
Debra Jasper // July 17, 2014

At the end of a Breaking Through the Noise keynote talk recently, a man came up to the podium and asked a critical question. How could he convince his boss that his company’s sales presentations have to be faster, crisper and straight to the point?

All of our clients are crazy busy, he said. “We don’t have time to tell them all about the history of our company or its founders. If they don’t hear something that impacts them right away, they’ll start reading their emails or texting.”

He’s so right, of course.

In the past few years, I’ve given talks to thousands of people from Utah to Ukraine. And I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) that whether your audience is made up of conference attendees, potential clients or even your own colleagues, it’s tough to get their attention. And it’s getting tougher every day.

Last year, professionals had on average an attention span of nine seconds. Now it’s dropped to eight. Eight seconds. That doesn’t mean people won’t tune in longer. But it does mean they will make a snap decision about whether your presentation is worth their time.

So in this post – the first in a series of five, I’ll unpack our Five Fast Fixes – key ways to dramatically improve your presentations, wow your audiences and get your message across.

First, the good news: Yes, attention spans are short, but in the presentation world, the bar is often really low. So even making one or two of these fixes will make a big difference. As a presenter, you’ll feel great, and your audience will feel grateful.

Fast Fix #1: Structure your talk (like a journalist would)

It sounds simple, but it takes some real thought to structure your presentation in a way that both piques curiosity and maps out where you’re headed. To get it right, you’ll need to craft a succinct nut graph and significance graph, a strong lead, subheads and walk-offs. Which is a jargon-y way of saying you’ll need to think like a journalist.

Here’s what I brought to presentations from my days as an investigative reporter.

First, know your why.

Before you start creating your PowerPoint, write out—in just one or two short sentences—what your presentation is about (your nut graph) and why your audience should care (your significance graph). This is harder than it sounds. So write this in advance—long before you create a single slide.

Keep this sentence nearby as a reminder to stay focused, and not to give in to the temptation to stuff too much content into your presentation. (As my editor once cautioned, you can give people one slice of pie and they’ll be happy. But if you try to make them digest the whole pie at once they’ll feel sick).

Start with a great lead

Strong presentations (like stories) start with a great opening. Do you have a funny story that will get your audience fired up? How about surprising data? Even a mildly interesting but relevant anecdote can work if it leads you easily to your first key point. (See the lead to this blog post.)

Break up your content

You wouldn’t read a book without chapters (or subheads). So why would you leave them out of your presentation? Break your presentation into key chapters and give your audience a glimpse of what’s to come. Giving people a road map can enhance their understanding of your topic, and make it easier to keep up.

For example, describe your Five Fast Fixes, Top Four Ways to Accomplish Your Goals or Three Next Steps.

Tip: If you have more than five chapters, announce only five upfront and reveal the sixth as a bonus. Otherwise, people will worry that your talk will run on forever.

Keep Them Curious

Each chapter of your presentation needs a brief wrap up (what journalists sometimes call a walk off). You’ll find that a lot of book chapters end with mini wrap- ups, as well as use foreshadowing to make you want to flip to the next chapter. Use that same approach with your presentations. End each section of your talk with a key point or cool quote, and then give them a preview — something that makes the audience curious or excited about what’s coming next.

Never End on Questions

And finally, at the very end of your talk, tell the audience: “Before I wrap up, what questions can I answer?” In essence, signal to the audience that after their questions you’ll have a just a little more material to cover. This keeps you from having to end your talk on a low-energy question, or worse, no questions at all. (If you’ve spoken at an afternoon conference, you know the pain of being the only presenter standing between your audience and the bar).

After the Q & A, end with a killer video, quote or statistic—something that makes people laugh, think more deeply—or both.

If all of this sounds like a lot of work—it is. But if you’re giving a sales presentation, a keynote talk or trying to persuade your boss to give you a bigger budget, the upfront time is well worth it. Adding more structure to your presentations will help you open big, keep the audience engaged and own the ending. And that’s a lot more fun than watching people get restless, start checking their phones or drift away altogether.

Now, before I wrap up, what questions can I answer?  🙂

Final Note: Foreshadowing and other techniques outlined here only work if you don’t give people your presentation in advance. I equate handing out your slides in advance to giving away the ending to a book or movie. Just don’t do it (more to come on this topic later in this series).

In the next post, I cover Fast Fix #2—and the biggest mistake we see in presentations today.

Want more?
Get a sneak peek at all five Fast Fixes, featured in Columbus CEO magazine.

Or, learn more about our popular keynote talks, where we cover topics like:

  • Five Fast Fixes for Powerful Presentations
  • The Three Curses Standing Between You and Your Audience
  • The New Realities: The Three Shifts Today’s Business Leaders Can’t Afford to Ignore

by: Debra Jasper  (adapted from her guest post in Columbus CEO)