Designing a Presentation: Guidance on Structure

In the ASP presentation skills classes and appointments people often ask me for quick tips to improve their presentations. My most frequent response is ‘think carefully about the structure’. Most people try desperately to cram their presentations full of interesting facts and information without thinking about a framework to deliver that information to the audience. This is a problem, because unless the structure is very clear, people quickly get lost and can’t interpret the information you’re presenting in a useful way.

silhouette of man presenting

In my mind I often make analogies between constructing a building and designing a presentation. For buildings, the architect first has to design a strong and appealing framework before the builders apply the materials. If the builders stuck the materials together before the architect had a chance to come up with anything, then you’d just be left with a messy pile of wood, bricks and cement. In the same way, a presenter needs to have designed a framework for the information before sticking it all together for the messages to be clear and memorable.

Of course, designing a framework for a presentation is much simpler than designing a building. Really it is just a question of having obvious sections with clear signposting between them. Typically, well-structured presentations give an introduction that introduces the speaker, describes the issue and importantly has an outline statement that describes what the main points of the presentation will be. The speaker will then move onto the main points, which normally number around three for a 10-15 minute presentation, although there may be some sub-points too. Finally, the speaker will have a conclusion that recaps the main points and offers something to think about at the end, hopefully reaffirming why all this information is useful in an interesting way.

Between the introduction, each of the main points and the conclusion, the speaker will use clear transitions. These normally consist of a few sentences that summarise the previous information and guide the reader onto a new main point. To make another analogy to a building, if the main points are the building’s floors, then the transitions are the stairs between them: they allow the speaker to take the audience from one point to another. Transitions between sections in a presentation are just like trying to link paragraphs in an essay so the information is clear and easy to follow. Without clear transitions, the audience can get left behind. If you are not sure what kind of language to use, don’t worry, there are loads of ‘stock transition phrases’ that speakers frequently use to keep their audience on track as they move between sections. You can look here to start: http://sixminutes.dlugan.com/speech-transitions/

The things I’ve talked about here aren’t rocket science, they’re really quite simple, but it is surprising how many people fail to follow these simple rules when speaking and instead deliver a heavy mass of indiscernible information that leaves their audience frustrated. So next time you design a presentation, take time to think about your main sections and transitions and you’re presentation will probably become a lot clearer.

If you want to know more about giving presentations or would like some practice of delivering a presentation to a group, then come along to the ASP Presentation Skills class.

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