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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Communication: how to hit the target

Samir Parikh explains the strategic thinking behind an effective business presentation 


There is a set of well-proven guidelines to help ensure that your next presentation hits the required target. We use these guidelines ourselves in the consulting industry but they could be applied easily in the actuarial context. This presentation design starts with a strategic thinking exercise, examines the formulation of a clear presentation plan and discusses how it can be translated into a set of strong presentation slides that support the speaker, yet embody sufficient flexibility. 

The seven relatively simple steps illustrated in Figure 1 are based upon logic: 

  • Set a well articulated objective
  • Define the topics and main discussion points
  • Plan an audience interaction approach
  • Create the slide deck
  • Craft an interesting narrative
  • Decide how questions will be handled
  • Be prepared to adapt on the fly.

The final result: an approach that is easy to implement for any presenter willing to invest sufficient effort to secure success.


1. Set a well articulated objective

It may sound obvious, but this is where we’ve found the design of many presentations breaks down. Think about your real objective.

A colleague once explained that the objective of his presentation was “to inform a client about a methodology he planned to use on an upcoming project”. Is that a good presentation objective? Probably not. When presenting, we should avoid talking for the sake of talking. The objective of a presentation is therefore rarely purely to inform. Consider the reasons for sharing the information in the first place. After some discussion, the colleague reframed his objective as: 

“To secure our client’s commitment towards the use of the suggested methodology and to address any associated concerns.”

The design of an effective presentation needs to be objective-orientated. Make sure that the objective that you define is the one that you want to achieve. 

2. Define the topics and main discussion points

Ask yourself ‘Which topics need to be covered well to achieve the objective?’. Be selective in your choice. A crisp presentation is focused and avoids including material that is only partially relevant. Consider the importance of each topic and allocate a timeframe to each, allowing for additional time to be taken up by questions and discussion. Then, within each topic, select the main discussion points to be covered. 

3. Plan an audience interaction approach

To achieve its objective, most presentations rely upon dialogue with the audience. While some interaction can be spontaneous, it’s also a good idea to plan your interactions, as illustrated in Figure 2. A good tip is to interact with your audience early on. It gives a signal to the audience that a two-way dialogue is expected and they are less likely to settle into listening mode. 

Interactions can take many forms: checking in with your audience regularly, asking open questions, or arranging people into breakout groups for discussions are just a few examples. Be creative, but not over-creative. Select those methods that will work best to achieve the desired outcomes.  

4. Create the slide deck

Creating the slide deck will require two design decisions: one regarding the distribution of content onto presentation slides, the second selecting the best design approach for each. 

When distributing content, good judgment is required. Not every discussion point is likely to require a slide, whereas others may need to be illustrated using multiple slides. Figure 3 provides an example of how the content might be distributed. Many presentations fall into the trap of becoming ‘slide heavy’, making them clumsy to deliver and tiring for the audience to absorb. If you don’t plan to talk over a slide for at least a few minutes, is it needed? 

Figure 3 Presentation plan indicating content distribution

5. Craft an interesting narrative

The power of a compelling presentation lies in the narrative and the impact made by the speaker. This deserves a lot of thought. Ensure that your message is powerful and concise. Identify relevant examples and anecdotes to support key points and make sure that they will connect well with your audience. Consider your intended delivery style: is it going to be serious, relaxed, emphatic or humorous? Make sure the tone fits both the topic and your own personality as a speaker.

6. Decide how questions will be handled

Handling questions is an art. The ability to do this smoothly shows that you are knowledgeable and well prepared. Anticipate the most likely questions in advance and consider your responses. Keep in mind that, when a question is asked, the speaker has a few options: to answer the question directly, defer the question politely to a later point in the presentation, or take the question off-line if the answer is specific and unlikely to be of interest to others. Another option is to use your audience. Ask others in the room to propose answers and facilitate a constructive discussion. 

7. Be prepared to adapt on the fly

The logical way to present your material is sequentially, from start to finish; however, it is not always that simple. When presenting to a group of senior executives, you may find that their interest lies in some topics but not in others. Telling people what they know already is an engagement killer, so you might need to depart from your plan.

An important action is the navigation check point taken after the agenda (see Figure 2). The feedback collected will help you decide how to navigate onwards. Be flexible. You may need to shorten the time spent on certain topics, simply emphasising the must-know information, or to skip some topics if they turn out to be redundant. 

Strong presentation delivery is a dynamic exercise based upon an objective-driven framework of well structured content. These seven steps have been proven to create robust presentations, yet still embody sufficient flexibility. Less successful presentations can usually trace their shortfalls back to one or more of these steps. Accompanied by the attractive design of material and good platform technique, their use can be very powerful.  

Good luck with your next business-critical presentation.

Samir Parikh is the CEO of SPConsulting AB, an organisation specialising in the development of consultative capabilities. His book The Consultant's Handbook: A Practical Guide to Delivering High-value and Differentiated Services in a Competitive Marketplace, is published by Wiley.