Audience at the conference hall.
ATD Blog

Golden Rule of a Great Presentation

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

For many of us, when we’re asked to do a presentation, we have to fulfill three roles:

  • Developer. We have to put together the outline, references, resources, and so forth. We’re the developer of content. The good news is we’re also the subject matter expert. We know our stuff, so this step is about curating the right information.
  • Designer. This role is a bit tougher. Often when people are asked to draw or be creative, their first response is “I’m not an artist!” But when developing a presentation, part of our job is to incorporate visuals that help tell an engaging story.
  • Deliverer. Lastly, we’re responsible for communicating the content. Whether via a webinar or on a conference stage, we have to bring the content to life. We need to practice our platform skills and come prepared to share the content we’ve created.

Even the best developers, designers, and deliverers need help telling their story. It’s hard to fulfill all three roles successfully. Sometimes, we get two roles perfectly, but fail at the third. For example, my love of minimalist design can have an impact on the way my presentations are received. (Translation: maybe I need to put more images in my presentations.) The question for me is, “How do I make that happen?!”

That’s why I was very excited to be invited to the Association for Talent Development’s (ATD) Visual Storytelling Certificate Program. The program was delivered in partnership with Duarte Inc., which was the firm responsible for creating the graphics for Al Gore’s keynote that formed the basis for his Academy-Award winning film, “An Inconvenient Truth.” I figured if Al Gore needs help with his PowerPoint, then I shouldn’t be afraid to spice up my presentations. As the facilitator, Michael Duarte, said during the session, “Take a risk and lose a fear.”

Start with Structure

Of course, if we want to tell a good visual story, we have to start with good content. But I also learned that every great presentation has a formula. The logical part of me loved this fact. From Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech, to Steve Jobs’ iPhone launch keynote, and even the Gettysburg Address—they all follow a formula. Nancy Duarte explains the formula in her TED talk “The Secret Structure of Great Talks.”

Additionally, they shared a StoryMap that provides a clear, logical way to organize content. More importantly, it gives us the shape (or flow) for a great presentation.

Support the Story with Visuals

After learning the structure of a great presentation, we focused on how to create visuals that support the story. I will share with you one very cool activity we did called “wordmapping.” I’ve mentioned before that visuals are a very important part of learning. But practically speaking, with all the copyright laws out there, it can be challenging to find images that can really support our content.


Wordmapping is similar to mind mapping, but with images. With wordmapping, you can visualize concepts in a new way. For example, let’s say you’re planning a presentation on workplace security. What’s the first image that pops into mind? Some people might say a padlock. But instead of simply using the image of a padlock, dig deeper by asking these follow-up questions:

What does a padlock make you think of? (1)____________________

AdvertisementWhat does (1)___________ make you think of? (2)______________

What does (2)___________ make you think of? (3)______________

Now you have four image options. From a design perspective, this enables more opportunities to be creative. We have more flexibility, and we allow our audience to use their creativity as well.


The Big Takeaway

Bottom line: I learned that the golden rule to presentations is to “Never give a presentation you wouldn’t want to sit through.” That was the big takeaway for me.

I want to sit through presentations that make me think. I like facilitators who don’t spoon feed me information. A simple activity like wordmapping made me realize that I don’t have to sacrifice images to give my audience their space to think. I don’t have to use literal images to tell a story.

Lots of people say it’s time to kill PowerPoint (or Prezi or Keynote, whichever one you use). I say it’s time to use these tools more effectively.

Editor’s Note: This post is adapted from the HR Bartender Blog.

About the Author

Sharlyn Lauby, SPHR, CPLP is the HR Bartender, whose blog is a friendly place to discuss workplace issues. When she’s not tending bar, Sharlyn is president of ITM Group, Inc., which specializes in training solutions to help clients retain and engage talent.


Be the first to comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.