The Art of an Extraordinary Presentation: How to Capture Attention and not Bore Everyone to Death on the First Slide

Photo by S O C I A L . C U T on Unsplash

Blank mind, sweaty hands, racing heart. You try to make a strong opening, but your voice is shaking a bit. Damn, not again! You look at your first slide, set yourself straight, and continue. At about one minute in when you start to feel more comfortable, you look around the room and almost everybody is staring at their phones, out of the window, thinking about their cat or analysing their colleague’s shoes.

You lost them. They won’t remember a single thing from that 60-slide deck you put together last night.

Is it because they should be more disciplined? More focused on what you’ve got to say?

If you were truly honest with yourself, you would admit it is not their fault. Deep inside you know, you should have made the presentation more digestible. More engaging. More attention-grabbing.

The good news is it doesn’t have to be like this the next time.

To give you some credit, crafting a captivating presentation is not easy. Especially in today’s working world where you probably got two 30-minutes slots between your meetings to put it together.

The key to a great presentation is the work that happens before you start filling your slides with content. Much like with writing.

It is ironic that our brains are wired for stories, and we can easily tell whether a story is good within a matter of seconds, but once we pick a pen to create one, it is like we forget everything we know.

I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.’ Flannery O’Connor

But how can you truly leverage storytelling and not only use it as a trending hashtag?

If you want to overcome the blank slide and make a lasting impact on your audience, here is a 6-step recipe that can help.

#1: Frame your story

When building a deck, no matter how much time you have, you should always start with answering a set of clarifying questions to frame your story.

What is the goal of this presentation?

What is the main message I need to deliver?

Who is my audience and what level of information do they have about the topic?

What shift in their mindset do I want to achieve?

If you start putting random content on slides straight away, you will create more work for yourself later (or end up with a very shitty presentation).

#2: Choose a storytelling approach and build an outline

Now that you know what you want to say, you can start thinking about how to say it in a way that connects and impacts the audience.

Different storytelling approaches deserve a separate article but in most cases, Nancy Duarte’s story structure is a good place to start.

Ellen Skye Riley blog

This structure is relatively easy to follow. It puts into contrast the status quo and what could be a better way in the future. It does that in several steps and the gradual pace builds up the tension and reveals the main issues of the status quo. You might notice that it is not rushed. It gives the audience time to process the information and accept that change is necessary. With a bit of imagination, you can use this structure to communicate everything from creative ideas to sales results in Q2 and how to do better.

The choice of the storytelling approach is tightly knit with your presentation outline. The main goal here is to break down your main message into small breadcrumbs that lead the listener into your desired mindset shift. This is where you put together the arguments for your case.

What helps me to build an outline is to write down the headlines for the slides (which are the main messages) on paper, reshuffle them and clearly spell out what is the transition to the next slide within the story. This might seem like a lot of work, but trust me, once you have done these first two steps, everything else is easy.

Amazing presentations are not built through design skills, but the clarity around the story you want to tell.

#3: Capture attention by piquing curiosity

For the audience to accept any idea or concept, you need to engage them and give them a reason to care. The easiest way to do that is to ask them questions, challenge their beliefs, and shake up the mainstream narrative.

You can’t jump straight into presenting your ideal version of the world without properly showing what is wrong with the current one.

#4: Make numbers human

Our brains are wired for listening to and remembering stories. The story is a concept that we can all grasp by instinct.

While numbers might be the language of the business world, clustering your slide with 3 ineligible graphs will not make an impact. You have a much better shot of taking the most important figure and wrapping it into one person's story — be it a customer or an employee.

People won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.’ Maya Angelou

There are no creative boundaries, but one. Don’t fabricate your story, you will do a great disservice to yourself and lose the trust of your audience. If there is one thing humans can sniff from distance, it is ingenuity. Look for real stories, there is no shortage of them around you.

#5: Become memorable by being specific

Abstract concepts and vague words are the biggest enemy of understanding. You don’t want people to ask, “What does she mean by that?”

When introducing something novel, use examples, metaphors — or any figures of speech to make your words come to life.

You can say: Imagine Tinder, but for start-ups and investors.

See what I did there? I used the concept you are familiar with (Tinder = match-making app) and explained how it works in a different industry in one sentence.

When you get it right, you get a clear picture in your mind or the infamous aha moment.

#6: Cut more than you add

Once you are done with your first draft — or even when you have a sketch of the slides, you need to become a ruthless executioner.

You need one main message per slide and either one story or number that supports your argument. If you are trying to say more than that, you will lose your listeners. If you need to explain a process, break it down into steps using visuals.

In the end, you should cut your deck down by around 50 %. Chances are you will have something straightforward and memorable.

Key takeaways

  1. Frame your story

2. Choose a storytelling approach and build an outline

3. Capture attention by piquing curiosity

4. Make numbers human

5. Become memorable by being specific

6. Cut more than you add

If you found this useful, give it some claps or share it with someone who might need it.

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Dominika Vasova

Dominika Vasova

Storytelling & Communication Trainer. Obsessed with psychology behind human behaviour, ideas & creativity.