[Skip to content]

Sign up for our daily newsletter
The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

7 steps to create a powerful presentation

Steve Campion gives advice on how to present well, get your message across and ensure your audience engages with it and remembers you


Although most presentations need to contain facts and figures, it’s the stories that we remember

Picture the scene... you’re trying to listen to the speaker, but their presentation slides are so distracting that your mind wanders. You see people looking at their watches, wondering what’s for lunch, and perhaps slipping gently into a slide-induced coma. We’ve all been there.

Yet, with a little preparation and forethought, your presentation can be engaging, powerful – and enjoyable for you and your audience.

Know your audience – create a persona

Think of your talk as a gift to the audience. I wouldn’t buy the same gift for my nephew as I would for my eccentric aunt, so why would I assume that each audience will be the same? Think about the reason you’re being asked to present, the size of the audience and what they may already know about the topic. Nothing induces boredom more than explaining something that someone already knows, or causes more confusion than assuming they know all the acronyms and jargon that you’re using. The most useful approach is to build a ‘persona’ to help you think about people in the audience, or more than one if it’s a diverse group. Give your persona a name and think about what they’re like, why they’re here, their hopes and fears and how you might solve their problem. 

1. Develop your idea – start at the end

Your presentation should have one message. It could be to solve their problem by buying your product, investing in your project or changing a policy. In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey said: “Begin with the end in mind” – and this is especially true when it comes to presentations. 

If you’re not sure what the audience should think, feel and believe by the end of your presentation, then grab a few Post-it notes and start doodling. I tend to find that the first ideas are rarely the best, but with a few iterations you can come up with something much more compelling. You can turn ‘buy my market research service’ into ‘hear how XYZ improved results by delighting their customers’. Remember to focus on the benefit to the audience.

2. Plan your presentation – step away from your computer

Step away from the keyboard... If you really want your talk to have an impact, this is where the magic happens. Pick up your notes and plan out the key points that you will make to help your audience take in your message. Then add a story or anecdote for each point. Rather than saying that your taxi company has more drivers than anyone else, share a story of how a client had been able to get to the airport after a last-minute flight change. Although most business presentations need to contain facts and figures, it’s the stories and emotional connection that we remember.

Think about how you’re going to share facts and figures. If you’re showing a trend or comparison, then a well-constructed line graph or bar chart may be all that’s required to make your point. Be cautious when using pie charts though. It’s not easy to make sense of abstract angles and it gets worse if there are lots of segments. Unless your message is ‘rubber ducks represent a quarter of our sales’, then another method may be better. Always ask ‘will this chart make it easier for this audience to understand this message?’. 

If not, try something different. If you do need to provide the detailed data, make it available in a handout or follow-up email.

3. Create your visual aids – and keep text to a minimum

Look for images that support your points and stories. An authentic picture of a happy child playing could set the scene for your talk about the value of play. You can find plenty of free-to-use photos by searching online for ‘Creative Commons’, there are also low-cost photo libraries. Best of all would be to use your own photos. Photos or quotes from your current customers can help, and video can be particularly powerful. However, avoid using a video at the start of your presentation. I’ve been to many conferences where a speaker has opened with a generic corporate video, and no matter how interesting the topic, the audience had switched off before the speaker even started. If you are presenting at an event, make sure that your first and last slides have your name and contact details, and the event hashtag if there is one.

You may be required to use a corporate template, and while that can seem restrictive it’s also an opportunity to get creative. Ensure the images you use are consistent with the corporate style and colour scheme, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that every slide needs to contain your logo. If you’re 20 minutes into a presentation and people don’t know who you are, then a logo isn’t the solution.

Finally, consider your use of text carefully. I recently saw a vendor pitch with 221 words on a single slide. Yes, I counted. And no, I’m still not sure what their message was. Use text sparingly and use a large, clear font. It can be useful for quotes or to emphasise a point that you’ve just made. Just remember that your audience can’t read and listen to you at the same time, so always pause after revealing something on the screen.

4. Set aside time to rehearse – keep to time 

You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘practice makes perfect’. You’re not aiming for perfect, but practice will make you better. Rehearse what you’re going to say and how you’re going to use your slides. 

Go back to your persona(s) and imagine their reaction as you make each point. Make any notes that you need, but don’t make the mistake of reading to the audience. The rehearsal process builds confidence and also allows you to practise your timing. If someone has given you 20 minutes to present, then having an hour-long presentation is no good. In fact, be prepared to do it in 15 minutes if necessary. 

5. Prepare to present – check the technology

Watching a salesperson spend 15 minutes trying to connect their latest iPhone to a Soviet-era television can be welcome entertainment on a cold and drizzly day, but it doesn’t give them much chance to get their message across. 

Always check what equipment you’ll need to use when presenting and pay particular attention to connectors for screens and projectors. 

Bring spares of everything possible in case something goes wrong and take a power extension cable too. Having your presentation on a USB stick can get you out of trouble in an emergency. Remember that things can change at the last minute, so be prepared to adapt, and try to arrive early so that you can test that everything is working.

6. Deliver your powerful presentation – with a smile

Take a deep breath. Smile at the audience. Then enjoy the experience of delivering your powerful presentation to an audience that will be enthralled, delighted and convinced by your message.

Being asked to deliver a talk is a great experience. Whether it’s a sales pitch to a client or an update in a team huddle, the most important thing is to focus on the needs of the audience and make sure your message is useful to them. 

The seven steps above will help you deliver the most powerful presentation possible, and produce an experience that is enjoyable for both you and your audience.

There are more than 300 Toastmasters clubs in the UK and Ireland, with more than 7,500 members. To find your local club, go to www.toastmasters.org, follow @Toastmasters on Twitter

Steve Campion is a member of Toastmasters International, a non-profit organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills