In Investment, Sales, Startup Management, Training
Bill Gates, 2003

Bill Gates, 2003

Any time I present, people who weren’t there ask me afterwards “how did your presentation go?”  I have come to realise that there is no need for them to wait until after the presentation to ask me.  I can tell them immediately beforehand with a fair degree of certainty, and even a couple of weeks before I will have a fair idea.  So how can I predict the future?

There are lots of factors that often get the credit for great presentations

  • The skill of the presentor
  • The presenting tool used (prezi is often admired)
  • The quality of the proposition being presented

The conclusion I have drawn from my own experience, and from watching others, is that none of these is a particularly good predictor of the quality of a presentation.  The most consistent indicator I have seen for really great presentations is preparation.  The better the quality of preparation, the better the outcome.  A really good presentation takes many hours (even tens of hours) of preparation  over weeks prior to delivery.

There’s a lot of great information on the internet on presenting and hundreds of books.  I’ve tried to note down a few of the types of preparation that I think are important here:

Tell a Story

Humans connect to stories more than facts.  Working out the story that a presentation should tell is a great first step to really engaging the audience.  Thinking about the story is usually best done long before going near tools like PowerPoint that make you think in terms of slides and bullet points.

Support the Story with Visuals

Visual communication is hugely important – the old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” has a lot of truth behind it.  Using visual aids really strengthens a presentation.

Typically I reach for PowerPoint or Prezi at this point, and these are both great tools.  The problem with PowerPoint is that it can encourage me to write a bullet point version of my script instead of thinking through what images, diagrams video would really support what I’m saying.

The trick is to ensure that the visuals SUPPORT the script, they should never BE the script.

Handouts are Different

I’ve heard the excuse lots of times “I need all the words on the slides so I can send them to people after”.  This makes for a bad presentation, and bad handouts.  If you need handouts, they should be produced separately either by adding to the presentation visuals or in a separate but more appropriate format.

Keep it Simple

Tell the audience everything they need to know to understand and relate to the story, and nothing more.

For one example of a really simple approach Guy Kawasaki on Pitching for the 10/20/30 rule of presenting.

Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse

This is key.  Practise on your own.  Record yourself doing it.  Practice with your friend/housemate/flatmate/partner.  Practise with colleagues.  Practise with peers.  The more the better.  Listen to feedback, but  trust your own instincts when deciding which bits to respond to.

I’ve heard “Oh, I don’t need to practise, I’ll just get stale” or “I can work from my notes, it will be more natural that way” and I’ve been guilty of thinking that way myself.  I don’t believe either of those is true – the more practised a presentation is the more confident the presenter will be and the better the presentation will be.

Practise answering questions too!


Great presentations come from a coherent story, with visual aids that support it, a simple approach, and a confident and well rehearsed presenter.

I do frequently have to “wing it” on a presentation and I usually do OK, but I am no longer under any illusions that my innate brilliance can turn “winging it” into a great presentation.  Only preparation can do that.

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