Developing and Delivering Effective Presentations

Presentations are a means of communication used throughout the entire business winning process and adapted to the situation. Any member of an opportunity/capture team or bid or proposal team may be required to lead or take part in internal or customer-facing presentations. To be effective, step-by-step preparation as well as the method and means of presenting the information should be considered carefully.


An effective presentation has an impact on the audience, so every aspect of the presentation must be audience focused, including the presentation medium. Yet, most presenters tend to focus on themselves, not the audience. For instance, when preparing presentations, most presenters think:

  • I want a security blanket, so I’ll use slides as speaker prompts, not audience aids
  • I don’t have much time, so I’ll see what slides I’ve got and base my content on them
  • I’ve left it too late to practice, so I’ll put extra words on the slides to remind me what to say

Or, when given a presentation to create, presenters may open PowerPoint and think, “I’ll start by writing headlines, then bullets, group common topics in boxes, add a bit of shading, a bit of clip art … .” This approach rarely works, and it means that:

  • PowerPoint or visual aid media becomes the way the presenter thinks, rather than a tool to convey thinking
  • The audience (and what the presenter wants them to do after the presentation) is ignored

Since nearly everyone prepares presentations in this way, nearly every PowerPoint looks the same—a cover slide, table of contents, table of contents with the first topic highlighted, text-heavy complicated slides, table of contents with the second topic highlighted, and repeat.

So, the best way to use visual aid media is the total opposite of common practice:

  • Start by thinking about what you want to happen after the presentation, not what your content should be—and let this govern your entire presentation
  • Think about what’s best for the audience, not what’s easiest for you to talk about
  • Go to PowerPoint or other visual aid media last, not first. In other words, create your content, and then transfer the relevant elements to your media.

The presenter’s role is to communicate with the audience and control the presentation, including audience interaction.

Best Practices

1. Think about your audience first.

Before preparing material for a presentation, consider and understand your audience so you can tailor your content to what will best interest those listening. The audience will receive your message, filtered through and affected by their own experience, knowledge, and personal values.

Your audience’s reaction, and therefore the success of your presentation, will largely depend on whether you effectively communicated your message and whether it met their expectations. As a presenter, you don’t control the audience’s expectations. What you can do is find out what they have been told about you or your organization and what they are expecting or want to hear.

2. Use a customer-focused structure to develop presentations.

Follow a logical presentation structure to ensure that your audience retains as much of the information as possible. People find it difficult to maintain concentration for long periods of time, so any presentation to any audience should be succinct, well-structured, and interesting.

Before you begin developing your presentation, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the purpose of the presentation?
  • What is my objective?
  • What outcomes or next steps do I want to achieve, and what outcomes or next steps do the customers or senior managers expect?

Regardless of whether your presentation will be delivered formally or informally, you should always aim to give a clear, well-structured delivery. That is, you should know exactly what you want to say and the order in which to say it that will be of most interest to the audience. There are a number of recognized structured methods to organize presentation content:

Harnessing the power of three

In public speaking and rhetorical debate, as well as in much communication, three is the magic number. The human brain finds it relatively easy to grasp three points at a time; people find three points, ideas, or numbers easy to understand and remember. You could therefore structure your presentation around the number three.

For example, your presentation could have three main elements: the introduction, middle, and conclusion. Within the main body of your presentation, divide your key message into three elements and then expand each of these points into three subpoints. If you are using a visual aid, limit the number of bullet points to three, and expand on each of these as you go along.

What, why, and how?

You could structure your presentation by addressing the questions “What?”, “Why?” and “How?”

“What?” identifies the key message you wish to communicate from the audience perspective. What will they gain, what can they do with the information, and what will the benefit be?

“Why?” addresses the next obvious question that arises in the audience. Having been told “what,” the audience will naturally start to think, “Why should I do that?” “Why should I think that?” or “Why should that be the case?” Directly addressing the “Why?” in the next stage of your presentation means that you are answering these questions and your presentation is following what the audience perceives to be a natural route through the material.

“How?” is the next question that naturally arises in the audience’s mind. How are they going to achieve what you have just suggested? Try not to be too prescriptive here; instead of telling people exactly how they should act on your message, offer suggestions. You should also finish by proving what you have just said by providing evidence that your argument is beyond dispute.

Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you’ve told them

Compelling message (beginning). State why the subject is important to the audience and the key elements of the subject.

Main content (middle). Arrange the key elements in a logical order and one that places the most important items for the audience first. Then expand on each point, providing supporting material—discussion, argument, analysis, and appeal. If you are hoping to persuade people, you should address potential objections within the presentation so that you present a reasoned, well-balanced view.

Conclusion (end). Tell the audience what you have just told them (by summarizing the key points, concluding with the main subject again). The conclusion should repeat the main points, but try to use different words and summarize the main point and argument. End decisively so no one is in any doubt that your presentation is finished. This is also the time to ask the audience whether they have any questions, if you have not taken them during the presentation.

TIP: Current best practice is not to finish the presentation at the “questions” stage. Rather, you should present your audience with a topic for discussion—for example, “Would you like me to provide further details on any of the topics presented today, or have you got enough information?”

3. PowerPoint and visual aids are for visual media—use them for visuals, not words.

Your slides should accompany, not duplicate you. They must not tell the whole story, or there’s no point in you being there. Consider if your audience were to see your slides before your presentation; would they know what you were going to say just by reading them? If so, you have too much information on them. Only put simple, digestible keywords and relevant visuals on your slides, and then it’s up to you to elaborate on them.

Audiences will equate the quality of your slides and visuals with the quality of you and your message. It’s incongruous to talk about your “best-practice methodology” when presenting alongside worst-practice, poorly designed, text-heavy, unclear slides. If you don’t have the right level of visual media design skills, delegate slide creation to someone who does.

More than 80 percent of people prefer to receive information visually. A picture really can paint a thousand words. PowerPoint and visual aids are excellent tools for communicating visual messages such as graphics, charts, flow diagrams, graphs, and images. However, they are not good ways to communicate full sentences and reasoned arguments. You, the presenter, are better at doing that.

So, either create visual, text-light presentations or wordy, text-heavy documents. Don’t create something that is both and, thus, neither. Consider using images as an alternative, to make the most impact.

Figure 1. Identifying Common Presentation Mistakes. The vast majority of presentations contain slides riddled with full sentences and bullet points because they are the easiest to create. Audiences find bullet points uninspiring and—after seeing the 10th presentation in a row—dull. So, avoid using bullet points.

4. Be as rigorous with slide headings as you are with proposal headings.

You would never submit a proposal with the headings “About us,” “Our process,” or “Summary,” and nor should you with slides. Best-practice slide titles are interesting, clear, and—where appropriate—benefits-rich. For example, replace “About us” with “Why we are uniquely placed to help you” and replace “Summary” with “The three areas where we will bring the most value.”

Use animation appropriately. If your visual media shows six points, your audience will read ahead. You know this is true—just think about what you do when you’re in the audience. This means that while you’re discussing point 1, the audience is reading points 2 through 6, and they won’t be fully focused on any of them. So animate your slides and click to bring up each new point. Avoid having points flying in from the left or right, as many audiences will find this distracting. Make the point just appear.

5. Review and rehearse presentation content.

Remember to have your presentation and any additional materials reviewed in good time. Your reviewers can follow this simple checklist:

  • Ensure that the language used is appropriate for the audience
  • Ensure that words used are accessible and easily understood (such as those used in a conversation) rather than technical or obscure words—particularly important if the presentation has an audience with diverse native languages
  • Ensure that short, succinct bullets are used rather than long sentences; sentences invite the audience to read rather than listen
  • Ensure that metaphors are used to aid understanding and retention
  • Identify ways of raising the audience’s attention, and suggest additional visual materials that could be included to illustrate key points
  • Ensure that slides, illustrations, titles, captions, and handouts are free from spelling mistakes

6. Know when and how the presentation will be delivered.

Presentations are usually delivered directly to an audience. However, there may be occasions where they are delivered from a distance over the Internet using video conferencing systems, such as Skype. In choosing your presentation method, you have to consider several key aspects. These include:

  • The facilities available to you
  • The occasion
  • The audience, both in terms of size and familiarity with you and the topic
  • Your experience in giving presentations
  • Your familiarity with the topic

Presentation methods range from very formal to very informal.

  Very formal Formal Informal Very informal
Suitable occasion Large conference Smaller conference or group where you don’t know the audience Smallish group, probably internal, but not all are known to you Small team meeting where you know the other participants
Purpose Provide information to a large number of people Provide information, but also get a reaction Provide information, hear reaction, respond; possibly discuss Provide information or generate discussion
Stand or sit? Stand Stand Stand or sit Probably sit
Present from where? A lectern The front of the room Either within the group or from the front Your place at a table, or within the group
Visual aids Slides controlled from the lectern; can also use video or other multimedia Fairly simple slides Some visual aids, but kept to a minimum Perhaps a one-page summary of key points
Sound system or microphone? Yes Yes Probably not No
Type of room Large conference hall Large conference meeting room Meeting room or office Meeting room or office
Provided in advance Copy of slides Copy of slides Handout Nothing expected
Audience interaction Formal question session typically following the presentation Formal questions, but may get interruptions during the presentation Fairly interactive; presenter handles questions or discussion during the session Likely to be very interactive

Figure 2. Choosing a Presentation Method According to the Occasion and Its Formality. Very formal occasions tend to go with a larger audience, whose members you do not know well. Your role is likely to be more providing information and less discussing the information.

7. Use presentation notes.

You also have a choice how you manage your text, in terms of notes. Whether you’re confident enough to speak with very brief notes or you need full text, consider how you record your notes to remind you what you’re going to say. There are various ways you might choose to manage your text; the following table shows the most well-known methods and their advantages and disadvantages.

Method How to use Advantages Disadvantages
Full-text script Read Unlikely to forget anything
  • Less attention on the audience
  • Sounds stilted
  • Harder to change what is said dynamically
Notes pages from a slide package
  • Detailed reminders in relation to every slide
  • At the end of each point, write a link statement to lead you into the next one
Words tailored to slides
  • Cannot highlight sections or play with the font size easily
  • Difficulty quickly and visually identifying the most important points
  • Will have a sheaf of papers, which can be hard to handle
Cue cards
  • Write main points on separate index cards with concise supporting material written underneath
  • Ensure familiarity with the main points and the links between one idea and the next to become less reliant on the cards
Speaking directly to the audience, which increases your rapport
  • Small index cards are more professional than large sheets of paper, which may prove difficult to handle
  • Have to write by hand
Keywords on cards Simplify the information using keywords that prompt key points Using keywords increases spontaneity and rapport with the audience Easy to lose your place if sidetracked
Mind maps Develop diagrams to represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items linked to and arranged around a central key word or idea
  • Similar to using keywords on cue cards, but easier to illustrate complex relationships than with keywords
  • Helpful for interacting with audience
Difficult to keep track of progress
Whiteboards and interactive whiteboards
  • Record interaction with and comments from the audience during brainstorming sessions
  • Know how an interactive whiteboard works, and practice using it.
Good for developing an explanation, diagrams, and simple headings
  • Takes time
  • Back is turned from the audience when writing
  • Handwriting has to be legible, aligned horizontally, and large enough to be seen by all of the audience
  • Interactive whiteboard technology may be problematic
Flip charts Collect ideas and responses from the audience and create spontaneous summaries
  • Popular, low-cost, low-tech solution to recording interactive meetings and brainstorming sessions
  • Can be prepared in advance and is portable
  • Requires no power source and no technical expertise
If the audience is large, a flip chart will be too small to be seen by everyone

Figure 3. Choosing Between Options for Presentation Notes. Handouts summarizing or including the presentation’s main points are an excellent addition but must be relevant. You may also consider emailing copies of handouts to participants after the event. If your talk includes questions or discussion, summarize this and communicate it back to the attendees.

8. Create rapport with the audience.

If the presentation is a formal or semiformal customer event, begin with introductions. Take your time to get into position, make eye contact with the audience, and remember to smile. When introduced, always acknowledge the introduction with thanks. Unless it is a very small group or informal occasion, always stand to give a presentation or talk. Remember to keep your head up and maintain eye contact with the audience throughout. Be alert to the audience’s mood and reaction.

Maintaining interest throughout depends not only on the content but on your vocal delivery as well. Remember that the following aspects of voice control are important:

  • Volume — to be heard
  • Clarity — to be understood
  • Variety — to add interest

Don’t speak too fast, and remember to pause occasionally to let the audience assimilate the information. Use easily comprehensible language and avoid clichés and jargon. If you are sincere and enthusiastic, you will quickly develop a rapport with the audience.

9. Know how to deal with questions.

Dealing with questions in a presentation is a skill that anyone can master. As a general rule, if people ask you questions—even hostile ones—it’s not to trip you up but because they genuinely want the answer. Most people dread the question session because they fear losing control. A little thought and some early planning can avoid this risk. Any presentation is an information exchange—it’s as much for you to hear what people want to know as it is for them to hear from you. However, if your presentation starts to get diverted, try saying something like:

“I think we’re getting a bit off topic here. Let’s put that to one side, and you and I can chat about it later. Come and find me at the end, and we’ll exchange contact details.”

You could even say:

“I’d really like to get on with the presentation, otherwise I may not have time to finish. But let’s talk about this later.”

At the start of your presentation, you should make it clear whether and when you would prefer to deal with questions—as you go along or at the end of the presentation.

Some presenters prefer for audience members to ask questions as they arise during the presentation. The advantage of this approach is that you can deal with any misunderstandings immediately. However, there is also a danger that the question will disrupt or distract the presentation, or that questions will be raised that would have been covered later.

Other presenters prefer to deal with questions at the end of the presentation. If you prefer this approach, ensure that you set aside sufficient time for questions, but limit the amount of time available. The amount of time will depend on the type of presentation you are giving, but typically 10 minutes is sufficient. The advantage of this approach is that if you talk too quickly, you will simply have a longer question session.

When you have finished answering questions, make sure that you have the last word with a strong assertion of your main message. In other words, thank the audience for their questions and summarize again the main points of your presentation.

The main rule of question sessions is to treat your audience with the respect you would like to have shown to you, and answer their questions directly and honestly.

  • If they have asked a question, it is because they want to know the answer.
  • It is very unlikely that anyone will ask a question solely to trip you up, although this does happen.
  • If a question is provocative, answer it directly. Never be rude or show you are upset. Do not compromise yourself but maintain your point of view and never lose your temper.

Figure 4. Answering Audience Questions. Listen carefully to the question and, if the audience is large, repeat it to ensure everyone in the audience has heard. If you’re not sure you understood correctly, paraphrase it back to the questioner and check that you have it right. Answer briefly, and to the point.

If you do not know the answer, simply say so and offer to find out. Then ensure that you follow up. To be able to respond, you will need the questioner’s name and email address, so make sure that you speak to them before they or you leave.

“I don’t know” is an acceptable answer to some difficult questions, and it is much more acceptable than stumbling through an answer or making something up. “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and let you know” is even better.

Relax and don’t feel as if you have to know everything. If you don’t know, it’s better to be honest than to try to pretend. Trust takes a long time to build up, but it can be lost in just a moment, and audiences will almost always know when you are not being genuine.

Common Pitfalls and Misconceptions

Any member of the team can present.

Some people are natural presenters, and others will be uncomfortable. It’s important to know the strengths of the team and prepare each individual for their part in any presentation. All team members should have a thorough understanding of how they will be introduced, the slides they will be responsible for presenting, the key messages of the slides and the amount of detail required, and how they should hand off to the next team member to present. During the question session, everyone should know and have rehearsed the answers to customers’ expected questions, including difficult questions.

Presentations can be developed the night before and delivered without preparation.

This approach generally will deliver a presentation that is focused on the organization, its history, and the features of the solution—“It’s all about us”—rather than what is of most interest to the customer.

You should close the presentation with the question-and-answer session.

When you have finished answering questions, make sure that you have the last word. Thank the audience for their questions, then summarize again the main points (key selling messages) that your presentation was designed to communicate and your understanding of the next steps.


Presentations need to be considered in relation to the audience and the key messages that need to be conveyed. Content should meet the audience expectations first, rather than be driven by what the presenter is comfortable saying. Preparation and rehearsal are key to a successful presentation, whether it’s an internal pitch or to a customer. Always find out how long you have to present, and check if this includes time for questions.