Communicating your ideas in a clear and compelling way can be an important business skill to master. When it comes to preparing a knockout presentation, perfecting the visual design, selecting supportive evidence, and rehearsing can be essential activities. But devising an effective presentation structure can be a crucial starting step. A well-structured presentation can help keep the audience on track, freeing their attention to focus on your message.
Here’s a look at some of the basics of presentation structure, four frameworks you can use to get started, and some best practices that may help ensure you knock your next presentation out of the park.
Presentation Structure Basics
All presentations typically contain a beginning, middle, and end, but knowing how to structure yours can begin with a deeper analysis of the “Who,” “What,” and “Where.”
- Who: First, know your audience. How familiar are they with the material you’re presenting? Are they senior level executives, who may tend to digest complex information quickly or novices who might need more context?
- What: Second, what is the objective of your presentation? Are you hoping to inform or train? Persuade or pitch? Or, potentially, provoke action?
- Where: Finally, where is the setting for the presentation? Is it live or virtual? What are the audio-visual requirements? Will a Q&A follow? Once you pinpoint these basics, it can be much easier to choose a logical flow that captures your audience’s attention and appeals to both their emotions and intellect.
4 Frameworks for Well-Structured Presentations
A successful presentation structure often follows a narrative, and you can use the same hooks and cues storytellers do. There are several frameworks to consider, and templates for these frameworks are readily available as downloads from resources like Venngage, Prezi, and SlideModel.
Here are several popular frameworks and the presentation scenarios they may work best for.
A subtle variant of this framework is situation/complication/solution, and both can be efficient and compelling ways to present an argument or idea. They each present information in a three-part format.
- The problem: Explain what the problem is and why it exists.
- The solution: Transition to what your client can do about it.
- The benefit: Wrap up with how your company is uniquely positioned to solve the problem.
The problem/solution/benefit approach can provide a clear narrative that quickly establishes and resolves conflict, making it relatively easy to engage audiences and help them grasp the message. This format can be invaluable in business proposals, sales pitches, and consultancy presentations, as it succinctly outlines challenges, offers solutions, and highlights the ensuing advantages.
A successful presentation structure often follows a narrative, and you can use the same hooks and cues storytellers do.
2. Opportunity, Benefits, and Numbers (OBN)
This framework aims to cut straight to the point and therefore may be particularly effective for busy executives.
- Opportunity: You can start by quickly outlining what the opportunity is. Say there’s a growing demand for sustainable fashion, for instance.
- Benefits: Next, you can segue to an outline of the benefits, or what the audience stands to gain from the opportunity. Keeping with the example, the presentation might note that by transitioning to sustainable materials, clothing companies can attract eco-conscious consumers and increase brand loyalty.
- Numbers: You can follow up by showing them the numbers to support those benefits. Data might show how a rising number of consumers prefer buying from environmentally responsible retailers.
This simple presentation structure can help reduce the complexity of your message by helping you pare down facts. The more you add, the more you can risk diluting the power of the message. There can be wisdom and impact in simplification.
3. What? So What? Now What?
You can follow this presentation structure when your goal is to discuss experiences, events, or lessons learned – and potentially catalyze action.
- The “What”: The beginning can present the facts of the situation, with visuals or other supporting data, in an objective manner. “Our company saw a 20% decline in quarterly sales, as illustrated in this bar graph,” for instance.
- The “So What”: The middle can reveal the implications of the facts, and analyzes the impact and insights associated with the experience. “This decline suggests a shift in consumer preferences and, if not addressed, may result in significant loss of market share over the next year.”
- The “Now What”: The end can address actionable steps, including solution options, implications, and challenges or obstacles, landing with a call to action and a discussion or Q&A. “To counteract this, we propose a market analysis and a product revamp. I'll discuss potential challenges and then open the floor to suggestions and questions.”
Because this structure involves active engagement with your audience, it can help to be prepared to think on your feet. Being able to quickly address unexpected questions or concerns can boost your credibility, but it also can require a deep understanding of the topic.
4. The Pyramid Principle
Developed by McKinsey consultant Barbara Minto, the Pyramid principle inverts conventional paradigms by beginning with the conclusion or key message, followed by a summary of key arguments. Detailed supporting data is offered at the end – the base of the pyramid – to bolster and further clarify the conclusion.
The Pyramid presentation structure can be an efficient, streamlined approach that can help strengthen your clarity of thinking and foster succinct delivery. This is a no-nonsense structure to use when story telling would feel unnatural or awkward, such as when presenting dense topics that require diving into intricate details.
Presentation Structure Best Practices
Once you’ve chosen the best presentation framework for your needs, you can incorporate other best practices for well-structured presentations:
Start with a Strong Opener
Depending on the audience and context for your presentation, your opening comments might start with an introduction of yourself and your topic and establish your desired outcome. If appropriate, an attention-grabbing hook can set the stage by tapping into emotional impact to pique curiosity in your presentation.
As you move from one section of your presentation to the next, consider your transitions. Transitions are connecting words or phrases that keep your story flowing smoothly from beginning to end. Transitions can show your train of thought and serve as signposts that guide your listeners and maintain their attention. Practice the transitions, as they may be forgotten in the throes of the presentation. You can use this comprehensive list of transitions as a starting point.
Include Effective Supporting Material
Most presenters justify their points with a variety of supporting materials such as statistics, visuals, white papers, references, testimony, charts and graphs, or anecdotes. Examples, on the other hand, are frequently neglected, yet they can be one of the most powerful supporting materials; examples can provide instant clarity to help the audience understand a complex issue. It’s generally helpful to limit yourself to brief, real-world examples, rather than hypothetical ones or “what if” scenarios. Having some solid information to back up theories can help maintain interest.
Focus on the “Why”
When you're called upon to present an opinion or a solution it can be helpful to not waste too much time focusing on how you arrived at your conclusions. You can focus instead on what you're proposing and why. As Scott Elbin put it in The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success, focusing too much on how you came to your conclusion can result in “getting labeled as someone who, when asked for the time, explains how to build a watch.” Instead, you can emphasize the recommendations and their implications. You can address the “how” if it comes up in the question or discussion period.
Use Slides to Amplify Your Narrative
Legendary communicator Guy Kawasaki defined the ideal slide presentation structure with his 10/20/30 rule. According to the rule, a pitch should have ten slides, last no more than twenty minutes, and contain no font smaller than thirty points. The first rule helps you concisely outline your pitch, while the second can help make sure your audience stays engaged. The last rule ensures you don’t overuse text on slides, which is a common mistake. Speaking alongside accompanying images without reading pre-written text can requires practice but can help your message to shine through.
End with a Strong Conclusion
A good rule of thumb for the proportions of the beginning, middle, and end sections of your presentation structure can be 15-70-15, in which a solid 15% of the content is devoted to your conclusion. Often, presenters run out of time to fully articulate their conclusion, squandering the opportunity to reinforce the impact of their message. In a well-structured presentation, a conclusion will summarize your key points, which can enable you to restate the core idea you aimed to convey.
If your presentation is a call to action, this can be the time to emphasize next steps and declare a sense of urgency. If your goal is to stimulate discussion, a strong conclusion can embed a thought-provoking idea to spark conversation. Ultimately, the conclusion can signal to your audience they're equipped to move forward.
A well-structured presentation can benefit both the audience and presenter. Structuring your presentation with the narrative framework best for your audience and goals can engage listeners by making even data-rich information clear and persuasive. Beyond audience impact, a strong presentation structure can boost the presenter’s confidence, and an organized approach can strengthen content impact while allowing the presenter to focus on a polished delivery.
A version of this article was originally published on February 16, 2017.
Photo: Getty Images