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How to Give a Presentation Part II: Tell A Good Story

Any good presentation needs to tell a good story.

This post is in response to
Presentation Skills for Introverts: Full Tilt Boogie

Although public speaking is on the top of many people's list of anxieties, it's something most of us have to do for work, for church, for school, or for an organization we belong to. In the first part of this series, I wrote about how focusing on your audience's needs would help reduce your anxiety. In this half, I talk about how one way of meeting your audience's needs is to tell a good story.

The second step of reducing stage fright is to focus on the demanding task of delivering your message effectively.

Develop a Strong Storyline

Once you’ve decided on your goals and on what you want to say, you need to develop a strong storyline that will get the group there. I like the metaphor of a storyline in developing a talk, because it focuses on the continuity and logic of what you’re going to do and helps to focus me on the needs of my audience.

Like a good story, every presentation has a beginning, middle, and end that each serve very different functions.

The beginning of a story gives the group a common ground and shared experience from which to work. In a book, the author uses it to provide a setting and to introduce the main characters. In a meeting, you might use it to frame the issue you are there to address and lay out shared information that will help you move forward. In a discussion, you might remind the group of the main points of the paper. In presenting a project, you would use it to tell the audience what question you are trying to address, why it’s important, and what the main constructs are you’ll be talking about.

The middle of the story is where most of the action occurs. It’s here where you develop the shared information that will move the plot forward. In a formal presentation, these are your main ideas: what are intellectual puzzles you’ve grappled with? what evidence are you bringing to bear on them? These are the complicated ideas that you want to make sure everyone understands. In developing the plot line, it helps me to focus on what the group needs to know for us all to stay on the same page.

  • Have you introduced each character (idea, controversy, construct) that is important in the story?
  • Have you made it clear how these ideas interconnect and relate to each other?
  • Does your plot move forward in a logical fashion?
  • Have you answered the questions that will arise in the minds of your audience?

The climax of the story is when you solve the problem you laid out. In a meeting, this may be when you determine your plan of action. In a scientific presentation, it’s where you answer your question.

The resolution of the story is where you tie up loose ends. What is the main idea/feeling/plan that you want the group to take home with them?

Use Effective Tools

You have many different tools to use in developing a presentation. These include words, handouts, techniques for involving people in small and large group discussions, and graphics (including PowerPoint). Once you’ve established your goal and your storyline, the trick is to choose your tools to move things along. Because this is such a huge topic, I’m going to focus only on PowerPoint, because I think that it is the one tool that you are most likely to choose to use and that it’s the easiest one to use badly. Edward Tufte has made a strong case the PowerPoint has weakened our general ability to present complex ideas to audiences.

I won't make that argument, but I will say that it is really worth thinking about whether what you want to say is best conveyed in the linear, abbreviated form that PowerPoint forces you to adopt. For example, I always use it to teach statistics, because it's a linear subject where I want to make a few clear points. I don't use it to teach developmental psychology, where I want to be able to move from one topic to another and to encourage class participation.

If you don't believe the medium changes the message, check out the Gettysburg Address done as a PowerPoint presentation.

What Does PowerPoint Do Well?

PowerPoint is just like any other tool - it can be used well or badly. I find PowerPoint helpful to:

  • Focus the group on important ideas that I want them to keep in mind. This is particularly important when ideas are complex and you need to think about several things simultaneously.
  • Provide shared information. Shared information might be a painting, some data, or a statistical formula. If your data is complicated, it works great if you complement the slide with a handout. That way you can point to the screen to show them what you’re focusing on and they can look at the details on the handout.
  • Provide additional information you don’t want to talk about. For example, when I’m talking about my methods in a scientific study, I will mention what each of my main constructs are, but I will give examples of the idea and details about their means and reliability on a slide. Or you might provide the text of a long quote on a slide, but just mention one or two key sentences in it out loud.

Using PowerPoint Effectively.

When developing a PowerPoint presentation, follow the same rule as you do for yourself: don’t let it distract from your ideas and your goals. How to do this? There are a couple of things to keep in mind.

Know the technology you’re using. There are few things as annoying as watching someone trying to set up a non-working computer. Avoid this.

  • If you need a projector or other equipment, make sure it will be there.
  • If you are using someone else’s computer, bring your material on a stick or CD, copy it to the desktop, and run it from there.
  • If you are bringing your own laptop, make sure you have a power cord
  • Make sure you have the right cable to connect your computer to the projector.
  • Come early to ensure that your computer will talk to the projector. Do you know the button on your computer to push to make your screen project? Is your computer set up so you can see the screen and project at the same time?
  • Set your power settings so that your computer will not go to sleep.

Look at the background on your computer with fresh eyes. The audience looks at the screen as soon as you turn on the computer. What do they see? I saw a professor give a lecture that had his letter of resignation saved to the desktop. I once had a student give a class presentation where the background of the computer was a photograph of a woman sticking her hand down her pants with the fly mostly open. Don’t do this. Look at your icons, wallpaper, and screensaver and make sure this is all information you want to share with your audience.

Save your presentation as a PowerPoint show and not a PowerPoint presentation. When you click on or open a PowerPoint presentation, it opens the program and shows your audience your slides, notes, etc. Then you have to go through the menu and turn on the show. This is just a distraction and can sometimes be embarrassing. If you save your presentation as a show, you can just put in on your desktop, double click on it, and you’re right in the presentation. Why take the audience behind the curtains?

Use handouts to help people take notes. Under the print option in PowerPoint, you can choose to print handouts, which allows printing multiple slides per page. This is a nice option if people will want to take notes on your talk.

Choose a presentation style that complements your topic. Usually, simpler is better. There’s nothing wrong with plain colors and simple fonts. Were you ever really blown away by someone’s presentation because they had a really nifty background?

  • EVERY SINGLE ANIMATION YOU USE SHOULD HAVE A CLEAR PURPOSE. Blinking, flying words, and camera clicks just distract the group from the ideas being communicated. Don’t make your erudite analysis look like an ad for a used car dealership.
  • Animations CAN be used effectively to highlight what you want people to be looking at.
    • It can be especially effective to have what you’re talking about now bright, and everything else dimmed. This lets people catch up on their notetaking, but keeps focus.
  • Only use graphics that move your storyline forward.
  • Don’t use pictures you don’t need.
  • Two-dimensional graphs are easier to read than three-dimensional ones.
    • Structure graphs and tables so that the key contrasts you are trying to communicate are highlighted
  • If you need a complicated table or graph, use a handout. Don't try to oversimplify it just to get it on the slide. Then walk your group through the handout by putting individual pieces of it on the slide.
  • It can be especially effective to have what you’re talking about now bright, and everything else dimmed. This lets people catch up on their notetaking, but keeps focus.
  • Structure graphs and tables so that the key contrasts you are trying to communicate are highlighted

REMEMBER: PowerPoint complements your voice, it doesn’t replace it. Don’t read, talk. PowerPoint is just a prop.


In the essay, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within, Edward Tufte discusses the problems with using PowerPoint to shape presentations. His main argument is that the style encouraged by the use of PowerPoint undermines the kind of complex thought that should be the hallmark of good presentations and good decision-making. Tufte’s three main criticisms of PowerPoint are that it:

  1. focuses all the control and attention on the presenter and the presentation, rather than on the content and ideas;
  2. forces argument into a linear structure, which may not be appropriate given the particular goals of the presentation (meetings come to mind immediately;
  3. encourages oversimplification.

All of these pitfalls can be avoided if you use your tools rather than let them use you. How to do that?

  • Focus on the group and shaping the experience. It’s not about you. You’re just there to shape and facilitate a shared experience.
  • Determine your goals. Once you know where you want to go, you can figure out how to get there.
  • Develop a storyline. Think about the presentation from the group or audience’s perspective and lay out a storyline that will help you all move together towards your goal. Don’t forget to provide a setting and introduce your characters, explain how the characters move through the plot and what major action occurs, bring your talk to a climax, and provide a satisfying resolution.

You're the host. Help your audience to have a good time.