How to write a presentation (and deliver it, even via Zoom)

Woman speaking at a conferenceYou’ve been asked to give a presentation. Chances are, your response will be roughly one of the following:

1. It’s a subject you’re passionate about and you’re a confident speaker. You’re pleased to have the opportunity.

2. You secretly worry that your style is flat and unengaging. You’re not looking forward to it.

3. At best, the prospect makes you nervous; at worst, terrified. You’d rather have root canal surgery.
 
If you belong in one of the last two categories, you probably know you’re not alone. You may have heard the statistic that public speaking is more widely feared even than death.
 
There are only two types of speakers in the world Mark Twain quote
 

However you feel about the prospect of presenting, this comprehensive guide will take you step by step through the process of planning, writing and delivering a presentation you can be proud of (even via Zoom).

Use the contents links below to jump to the section you need most, make your way through methodically from start to finish, or bookmark this page for next time you need it.
 

Contents

What is a presentation?

The first thing to remember

1. How to plan a presentation

2. How to structure your presentation

3. Writing your presentation script

4. How to start a presentation

5. How to end a presentation

6. Creating your PowerPoint slides

7. Delivering your presentation

8. How to present online

 
 

What is a presentation?

Essentially, it’s a story. And its origins go back thousands of years – to when our ancestors gathered around the campfire to listen to the wise elders of the tribe. Without PowerPoint!

These days, presentations encompass the glitz and scale of the Oscars or the new iPhone launch through to business briefings to smaller audiences, in person or – increasingly – online. We’re focusing on the business side.

Whatever the occasion, there’s always an element of drama involved. A presentation is not a report you can read at your leisure, it’s an event – speakers are putting themselves on the spot to explain, persuade or inspire you. Good presentations use this dynamic to support their story.

 
 

Everyone wants you to do well

If you are nervous, always remember: no one sets out to write a poor presentation and no one wants to go to one either. There may be private agendas in the room, but for the most part audiences approach presentations positively. They want to be engaged and to learn. They want you to do well.

First things first: the date’s in the diary and you need to prepare. Let’s break it down.

 
Preparing a presentation
 

1. Preparing your presentation

Imagine you’re a designer in the automotive industry and your boss has asked you to give a presentation. The subject: the future of the car and how it will fit with all the other modes of transport.

Where to start? How to approach it? First you need an angle, a key idea.

We talk about ‘giving’ a presentation – and of course it’s the audience who will be receiving it. So, instead of beginning with cars (in this case), let’s think about people. That way we can root the talk in the everyday experience we all share.

Maybe you remember a time you were stuck in traffic on a motorway. Morning rush hour. No one moving. Up ahead children were crossing a footbridge on their way to school, laughing at the cars going nowhere. And you thought, ‘Enjoy it while you can! This will be you one day.’ But maybe not. Surely we can do better for future generations!

There’s your opening – the whole issue captured in a single image, and you’ve immediately engaged your audience with a simple story.
 

The who, the why and the what

Always begin with the people you’ll be addressing in mind. Before you start writing, answer three fundamental questions: who is your audience, why are you talking to them and what do you want to say?

The answers will provide the strong foundations you need and start the ideas flowing. Ignore them and you risk being vague and unfocused. Clear writing is the result of clear thinking and thinking takes time, but it’s time well spent.
 
Got a presentation to write? Before you do anything else, answer three fundamental questions: who is your audience, why are you talking to them and what do you want to say? @EmphasisWriting Click To Tweet
 

Start with the audience

Are you a senior car designer talking to your team? If the answer’s yes, you can assume high-level, shared knowledge.

But if you’re talking to the sales or marketing departments, you can’t make the same assumptions – there are issues you might have to explain and justify. And if it’s a press briefing, it’s about getting the message out to the general public – a different story again.

Knowing your audience will also dictate your tone. Your presentation to the board is likely to be quite formal, whereas a talk for your team can be more relaxed.

And what’s the audience’s mood? On another occasion you might have bad news to deliver – perhaps the national economy and the company’s finances are threatening people’s jobs. Then you must empathise – put yourself in their position and adapt your tone accordingly.
 

I want to …

You also need a clear objective (the why). For our car designer, the overriding objective should be to plant a key idea in the audience’s mind. Starting with that image of the schoolchildren, it’s to convince the audience that the company has a radical and distinctive design future.

That’s the takeaway. How should they do that? Should they explain, persuade or inspire – the three key strategies for any presentation? You may need to use several of them to achieve your goal.

Objectives should always complete the statement ‘I want to …’. What do you want to do?
 

It’s about …

The what is the substance of your presentation – the building blocks, all the facts and figures that tell the audience ‘It’s about …’.

Back to our designer. The move away from petrol and diesel will allow a complete rethink of car design. The electric power unit and battery can lie under the car’s floor, freeing up all the space taken up by the conventional engine. And then there are all the issues around emission-free, autonomous vehicles in the ‘smart’ cities of the future.

When you’re planning, it can be helpful to get all the information out of your head and onto the page, using a mind map, like the example below (for a talk on UK transport policy).

This is an effective way of unlocking everything you know (or still need to do more research on). Start with your main topic, then keep asking yourself questions (like who, what, when, where, how and why) to dig into all the aspects.
 
Mind map to plan talk on UK transport policy
 

Once you’ve got it all out on the page, you can identify which parts actually belong in your presentation. Don’t try to include every last detail: audiences don’t want to process piles of information. They are more interested in your ideas and conclusions.

Now let’s put all this research and planning into a structure.

 
 

2. How to structure your presentation

On 28 August 1963, Dr Martin Luther King Jr stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and delivered one of the most powerful speeches in history: ‘I have a dream’.

He was the leader of the civil rights movement in the US and his audience that day numbered in the hundreds of thousands. His goal was to inspire them to continue the struggle.

Presentations usually aim to either explain, persuade or inspire – sometimes with elements of all three. Your aim will determine your structure. This will be the backbone of your presentation, giving it strength and direction.
 

Explain in a logical sequence

When you explain, you add to people’s knowledge to build the key idea. But ask yourself, what does this audience already know?

If you’re an astrophysicist talking to an audience of your peers, you can use terms and concepts you know they’ll be familiar with. If you’re explaining black holes to Joe Public, you can’t do that. Typically, you’ll have to use simple analogies to keep the audience with you (‘Imagine you’re in a huge dark room …’).

Whether it’s black holes or a new software, good explanations start with what we know and then build on that understanding, step by step, layer by layer. The audience will stay with you if they can follow your logic and you can help this with linking comments – ‘Building on that … ‘, ‘This means …’, ‘To illustrate that, I’ve always found …’.
 
Presentations usually aim to either explain, persuade or inspire – sometimes with elements of all three. Your aim will determine your presentation's structure. @EmphasisWriting Click To Tweet
 

We need to change

If you’re writing a persuasive presentation, you also need to follow a particular sequence.

Whether you’re writing a pitch for a prospective customer or making research-based recommendations to a client, you follow the same structure. That structure is the Four Ps. It’s a powerful way of leading your audience’s thinking.

Start with the current situation – where you are now (position). Explain why you can’t stay there, so the audience agrees things have to change (problem). Suggest up to three credible ways you can address the issue (possibilities). Then decide which one is the optimum solution (proposal).

Three is a magic number for writers – not too many, not too few. But there may be one standout possibility, in which case you go straight to it (position, problem, proposal).

Think about how the pandemic has profoundly changed our working lives. Towns and cities are full of offices that people used to commute to. But to maintain social distancing, we’ve been encouraged to work from home where possible and to stay away from public transport.

At some point, decision-makers within organisations will have to make a call – or share a recommendation – about what to do long term. Should we go back to the office, stay at home or combine the two?

If we had to present on this choice using the Four Ps structure, we could outline the pros and cons of each possibility and then make a push for the one we recommend above the others. Or we could join the likes of Google and Twitter and simply propose purely remote working well into the future.

 

I have a dream

A presentation that inspires is about the future – about what could be. Scientists inspire children to follow careers in astronomy or physics with their passion and stunning visuals. Designers re-energise companies with their radical, exciting visions. Business leaders convince their staff that they really can turn things around.
 
The Rosette Nebula
 
An audience watching an inspirational presentation is not going to take away lots of facts and figures. What’s important is their emotional and intellectual engagement with the speaker, their shared sense of purpose. One way to build that engagement is with your structure.
 

From dark to light

The most inspiring presentations are so often born of shared struggle. On 13 May 1940, Winston Churchill addressed the British parliament – and the British people listening on their radios – in the darkest days of the Second World War.

He was brutally realistic in his assessment of the current position: ‘We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.’ He then set out his policy: ‘To wage war by sea, land and air, with all our might … against a monstrous tyranny’, and the prize: ‘Victory, however long and hard the road may be.’

In difficult situations, audiences immediately see through false hope and empty rhetoric. They want honest acknowledgment, and the determination and clear strategy to lead them to the future.

We can imagine how the same structure could show up in a more business-related context:

‘I’m not going to sugar-coat the figures. We have to change to save jobs and secure our future. There will be dark days and sacrifices along the way, but what’s the hardest part of any turnaround? It’s getting started. To do that, we all need to keep asking two fundamental questions: where can we improve, how can we improve? And if we push hard enough and if we’re utterly relentless, change will come and our momentum will build.’
 
Appeal to your audience's emotions
 

3. Writing your presentation script

You don’t have to write a script. Some people put a few PowerPoint slides together and wing it; others make do with bullets on a smartphone, laptop or cue cards. It depends on the event and the presenter.

Writing a full script takes time, but if it’s a very important presentation and you might use it again – perhaps to appeal for investment – it will be worth it.

Some people will write a full script because the company or organisation that’s commissioned a presentation will want to see a copy well ahead of the event (often for legal reasons). Others will write the script, edit it down to the required time and then edit it down again to bullets or notes.

If the presentation is to a small audience, your notes or bullets will suit a more conversational approach. There are no rules here – see what works best for you. But what you must do is know your subject inside out.

To write clearly, you must think clearly and a full script will expose the areas that aren’t clear – where an explanation needs strengthening, for example, or where you should work on a transition.
 

Timing is everything

A full script also helps with working out timing, and timing is crucial. TED talks, for example, have a strict 18-minute limit, whether in front of an audience or online. That’s short enough to hold attention, but long enough to communicate a key idea. (The ‘I have a dream’ speech lasted 17 minutes 40 seconds and it changed the world.)

It takes a very skilled presenter to go much over 30 minutes. If you are taking questions, however, it’s fine to build in extra time.

Imagine you’re writing your presentation in full and your slot is 20 minutes. On an A4 page with a 14-point Calibri font and 1.5 line spacing, that will equate to about 10 pages.

You can also divide the page in two, with slides on the left and text on the right (or vice versa). Then you can plan your words and visuals in parallel – and that will be roughly 20 pages.
 
Planning your presentation script
 

The most powerful key on your keyboard – Delete

Use these numbers as your goal, but your first draft will probably be longer. That’s when you start deleting.

Be ruthless. Anything not adding to the story must go, including those anecdotes you’ve been telling for years (especially those anecdotes). It’s not about what you want to tell the audience, it’s about what they need to hear.

Don’t feel you have to include every single issue either. Dealing with two or three examples in some detail is far better than saying a little bit about many more.

And interpret visual material you’re displaying rather than describing it, just as you wouldn’t repeat the text that’s on the screen. The audience can see it already.
 

It’s a conversation

Be yourself – don’t write a script that’s not in your style. We want the real you, not a supercharged version.

Some people are naturals when it comes to presenting – which can mean they’ve learned how to draw on their authentic strengths.

Sir David Attenborough is a great example. He has a wide-ranging knowledge of the natural world. He has an infectious passion and enthusiasm for his subject. And most importantly, he doesn’t lecture the camera: he talks naturally to his audience (and he’s now using Instagram to inspire new generations).

You can take a cue from Sir David and make your presentation style your own. Knowing your own strengths and really understanding your why will help you speak with purpose and passion.

And aim to speak naturally. Use conversational, inclusive language. That means lots of personal pronouns (I believe, we can) and contractions (Don’t you wonder …, you’re probably thinking …).

 

Sir David Attenborough introduces his new series, Our Planet at its premiere. He builds up our awareness by layering information alongside arresting statistics. These are framed simply, in relatable terms (‘96% of mass on the planet is us …’), so we easily grasp their shocking significance. He also uses ‘we’ and ‘us’ a lot to underline how this environmental emergency affects us all on ‘the planet we all call home’.

 

Finding the right words

Imagine you’re talking to someone as you write. And try saying the words out loud – it’s a good way to catch those complex, overlong sentences or particular words that will be difficult to say.

Presentations are not reports that can be reread – the audience has to understand what you are saying in the moment. Don’t leave them wondering what on earth you’re talking about, as they will only fall behind.

So avoid using long or complex words, or words you wouldn’t hear in everyday conversation (if your everyday conversation includes ‘quarks’ and ‘vectors’, that’s fine). And beware of jargon – it can exclude the audience and it quickly becomes clichéd and outdated.

Here are some more hints and tips on how to write effectively for speaking:

Syntax (word order): Disentangle your thoughts and arrange the words in your sentences to be simple and logical. Often, complex syntax shows up when the main point is getting lost inside excess information (or that the speaker is unsure what their main point is).

Pace, rhythm and tone: Varying the pace, rhythm and tone of sentences makes both the speaking and listening experience far more enjoyable.

Make sure the stress falls on the most important words. For example, ‘To be or not to be‘ (where the stress rises and falls on alternate words) or ‘I have a dream‘ (where the stress falls on the final word).

Vary the length of sentences and experiment with using very short sentences to emphasise a point.

Play with rhythm by arranging words in pairs and trios. Saying things in threes gives a sense of movement, progression and resolution: Going, going … gone. Saying words in pairs gives a more balanced tone (‘courage and commitment’, ‘energy and effort’) or a sense of tension between the words (‘war and peace’, ‘imports and exports’).

Analogies: Good analogies can work well in presentations because they paint vivid pictures for the audience. The best way to do it is to use either a simile (‘It wasn’t so much a dinner party, more like feeding time at the zoo’) or a metaphor (‘He was the fox and the company was the henhouse’).

Alliteration: This means using two or more words that start with the same sound, like ‘big and bold’, ‘sleek and shiny’ or ‘key components’. On the page alliteration may look contrived, but it can effectively highlight important phrases in a presentation.

Words to avoid: Be careful about using clichés like ‘pushing the envelope’, ‘playing hardball’ and ‘thinking outside the box’. And think carefully about using any word that ends with -ism, -ise, -based, -gate, -focused and -driven.

Be careful with humour too: don’t write jokes unless you can naturally tell them well. Keep the tone light if it fits the occasion, but a badly told joke can be excruciating.

 
 

4. How to start your presentation

People tend to remember beginnings and endings the most, so make sure your opening and conclusion are both strong.

You have about a minute to engage an audience. You want them to be intrigued, to want to know more, to come slightly forward in their seats. If you only learn one part of your presentation by heart, make it that minute.

A quick ‘thank you’ is fine if someone has introduced you. A quick ‘good morning’ to the audience is fine too. But don’t start thanking them for coming and hoping they’ll enjoy what you have to say – you’re not accepting an Oscar, and they can tell you what they thought when it’s over. Get straight down to business.

There are four basic types of introduction which will draw your audience in:

  • News – ‘Positive Covid-19 tests worldwide have now reached …’
  • Anecdotal – ‘About ten years ago, I was walking to work and I saw …’
  • Surprise – ‘Every five minutes, an American will die because of the food they eat.’
  • Historical – ‘In 1800, the world’s population was one billion. It’s now 7.8 billion.’

 

You can interpret these beginnings in any number of ways. If you were to say, ‘I have an admission to make …’, we will expect a personal anecdote relating to your main theme. And because you’re alone in front of us, it’s playing on your vulnerability. We’re intrigued straight away, and you’ve established a good platform for the rest of the presentation.

You can also combine these techniques. The historical beginning creates a sense of movement – that was then and this is now – as well as a surprising fact. It may prompt a thought like, ‘Wow, where’s this going?’ And you can trade on this with your own rhetorical question: ‘What does this mean for everyone in this room? It’s not what you think …’.

As well as setting up your story, you need to quickly reassure the audience they’re in safe hands. One way to do that is to give them a map – to tell them where you’re going to take them and what they’re going to see along the way.

Then you’re starting the journey together.

 
 

5. How to end your presentation

Your ending is what you want the audience to take away: your call to action, your vision of the future and how they can contribute.

If your presentation is online or to a small group in a small room, your ending is not going to be a battle cry, a call to man the barricades – that would be totally inappropriate. But equally don’t waste it with something flat and uninspiring.

Here are four effective ways to end your talk (like the intros, you can combine them or come up with your own):

  • Predict the future – ‘So what can we expect in the next ten years? …’
  • Quotation – ‘As our chief exec said at the meeting yesterday, …’
  • Repeat a major issue – ‘We can’t carry on with the same old same old.’
  • Summarise – ‘Continuous improvement isn’t our goal. It’s our culture.’

 

Predicting the future fits well with a historical beginning – it completes the arc of your presentation.

If you end with a quotation, make sure it’s relevant and credible – it has to be an authoritative stamp.

Repeating a major issue means pulling out and highlighting a major strand of your presentation, while summarising is about encapsulating your argument in a couple of sentences.

Your ending can also be a change of tone, perhaps signalled by the single word ‘Finally …’. It’s the audience’s cue to come slightly forward again and pay close attention.

As with your opening, it will have more impact if you’ve learned your ending – put down your notes, take a couple of steps towards the audience and address them directly, before a simple ‘Thank you.’

 
 

6. Creating your PowerPoint slides

We’ve all been there – watching a seemingly endless, poorly designed slide deck that’s simply restating what the presenter is saying. So common is this tortuous experience that there’s a name for it: Death by PowerPoint. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

 

Do you need slides at all?

As with your script, the first thing you should ask is ‘Do I actually need this?’ In 2019, Sir Tim Berners-Lee gave the Richard Dimbleby lecture for the BBC. He spoke for about 40 minutes with no autocue (he’d memorised his script) – and no speaker support.

This is a uniquely powerful form of presentation because the audience’s attention is totally focused on that one person. The call to action at the end of a presentation and delivering bad news are also best done without visuals.

 

Visual support

But if they’re well-judged and relevant, slides or other visuals can add enormously to a presentation – whether it’s photography, video or the ubiquitous PowerPoint. There are, however, two things everyone should know about PowerPoint in particular:

  • It’s incredibly versatile and convenient.
  • In the wrong hands, it can be unbearably tedious.

 
Your PowerPoint slides should not essentially be your cue cards projected onto a screen. They shouldn’t be packed margin to margin with text or full of complex diagrams.

If the presentation is live, the audience has come to watch you, not your slide deck. Online, the deck may have to work harder to sustain visual interest.

As with the script, keep your finger poised over that Delete key when you’re putting the deck together.

 

How many slides?

There’s no hard-and-fast rule about how many slides you should use, but think in terms of no more than one or two a minute on average. And don’t use more than a couple of short video inserts in a 20-minute presentation.

You might have a section where you show a few slides in a sequence or hold a single slide for a couple of minutes, which is fine. Varying the pacing helps to keep a presentation moving.

 

Optimise for psychology

As self-professed presentation aficionado David JP Phillips notes in his TEDx talk, people – and that includes your audience – have terrible working memories. If you don’t account for this fact in your slides, your talk will not have a lasting impact. In fact, most of it will be forgotten within around 30 seconds.

To counter this effect, David identifies five key strategies to use when designing your PowerPoint:

  1. Only have one message per slide: more than that and you’re splitting your audience’s attention.
  2. Don’t use full sentences on slides, and certainly don’t imagine you can talk over them if you do. People trying to read and listen at the same time will fail at both and absorb nothing. Move your running text into the documentation section instead, and keep the slide content short and sweet.
  3. People’s focus will be drawn to the biggest thing on the slide. If your headline is less important than the content below it, make the headline text the smaller of the two.
  4. You can also direct people’s attention using contrast. This can be as simple as guiding their point of focus by using white text (on a dark background) for the words you want to highlight, while the surrounding text is greyed out.
  5. Including too many objects per slide will sap your audience’s cognitive resources. (Your headline, every bullet, any references, even a page number each count as an object.) Include a maximum of six objects per slide and viewers will give a mental sigh of relief. This will probably mean creating more slides overall – and that’s fine.

 

More Powerpoint and visual aid tips

Here are a few more guidelines for creating your visual aids:

Prep

  • Never dive into PowerPoint as job one in creating your presentation. Work out your talk’s structure (at least) before designing your slide deck. Making a genuinely effective PowerPoint requires that you know your subject inside out.
  • List any visuals you’ll need as you prepare your script. That terrific photo you saw recently could be difficult to track down, and you might need permission and to pay to use it.

 
Simplicity

  • It bears repeating: keep each slide to one key idea.
  • Use the build effect of adding one bullet at a time (or use the contrast trick above) and try not to use more than three bullets per frame (or six objects overall).
  • Strip each bullet to the bare minimum – no articles (‘a’, ‘an’ and ‘the’), no prepositions (‘in’, ‘at’, ‘to’ etc) and cut right back on punctuation.
  • Every word that’s not there for a reason has to go. Delete, delete, delete.

 
‘Extra’ slides

  • Use a ‘walk-in’ slide. Rather than have the audience arrive to a blank screen, this tells them who you are and your presentation’s title.
  • Use occasional holding slides in between those with more content – perhaps an image but no text. They give the audience a visual rest and put the focus back on you.

 
Colours

  • A plain white background might look fine on a computer monitor, but it will be glaring on a big screen. Invert the norm with a dark background, or use shading or ‘ghosted’ images to break up backgrounds and add visual interest.
  • Some colours work better than others on-screen. Blues and greys are soft and easy on the eye. Red is a no-no, whether for backgrounds or text. And if you stick with a light background, favour a more subtle dark grey over black for the text.

 
Formatting

  • Use san serif fonts (like Arial, Helvetica or Calibri) and think about point size – make sure it’s easily legible.
  • Only use upper case where absolutely necessary.

 
Images and data

  • Photos work well full screen, but they also really stand out well on a black background.
  • Make sure your charts and graphics aren’t too complex. The dense information that’s fine on the page will not work on-screen – it’s too much to take in. Graphs behind a TV newsreader are often reduced to a single line going dramatically up or down.
  • Don’t present data or graphs and expect them to speak for themselves. You need to find the story and significance in the data and present that.

 
And finally

  • Proofread, proofread, proofread – or risk standing in front of an embarrassing spelling mistake.

 

Technical check

  • Check what laptop they’re using at your venue. If you’ve written your deck on a PC, run it on a PC (and, of course, the same rule applies if you’ve used a Mac).
  • If you’ve emailed your presentation to the venue, take a USB copy along as back-up.
  • If you’re presenting online, check which platform you’ll be using and get comfortable with it. If someone else will be hosting the event, make sure you arrange a time for a rehearsal, especially if there will be a producer.

 
 

7. Delivering your presentation

You’ve put a lot of time and effort into preparing your presentation and now you’ve come to the sharp end – it’s time to stand and deliver.

 

Run it through

You don’t have to rehearse, but most presenters do and for good reason – it catches weak points and awkward transitions. And, crucially, it bolsters confidence.

Read your script or go through your bullets aloud – it will help to settle your nerves. If you use colleagues as a dummy audience, you can do a sense check too: ‘Does that bit work?’ ‘Have I explained it clearly?’ ‘Do you get the big picture?’ And rehearsing out loud will catch those words and sentences you thought you could say but can’t.

The more you rehearse, the more familiar and natural the presentation will become. Rehearse the technical side too – where the video is going to come in, how you’re going to vary your pace and tone to maintain interest.

Try speaking slightly more slowly than you would normally so the audience catches every word, and don’t be afraid to pause now and again. It gives a breathing space for you and the audience.
 
A businesswoman presenting points to a member of the audience 

Connect with your audience

When you deliver your presentation for real, establish eye contact with the audience, just as you would in a conversation. In a small room with a small audience, talk to individuals. In a larger space, don’t talk to the first couple of rows and ignore the rest – include everyone.

And if you stumble over your words here or there, carry on and don’t dwell on it – you’ll lose your concentration. Audiences are generally forgiving and they might not even notice.

Each audience is unique: they react differently in different places. And although tomorrow might be the tenth time you’ve done the same presentation, it will be the first time this audience sees it. Your duty is to keep it fresh for them.
 

A final point

This is your presentation – you’re in control and the audience needs to feel they’re in safe hands.

It’s perfectly natural to feel nervous, but it’s the thought of doing it that’s the worst bit. Once you get going – and especially when you sense the audience is with you – the nerves will start to disappear. Try to enjoy it. If you enjoy it, it’s far more likely the audience will too.

And remember: everyone wants you to do well.
 

 

8. How to present online

Most of us will have given or watched presentations online. But while taking to Zoom or a similar platform to present was once the exception, it has become the default – at least for now.

It’s all too easy for this switch to cause usually skilled presenters to fall flat. But there’s no need for that to happen.

Indeed, all of the advice we’ve talked about on preparing, structuring and writing for in-person presenting is equally relevant for your online delivery. You just need to be ready for the unique challenges that remote presentations pose.

An obvious one is that while you still have an audience, it will probably be muted and possibly even unseen (if webcams are switched off). This makes it far more difficult to gauge audience reaction, and if the event is pre-recorded, there might not be any at all – at least not immediately. Clapping and laughing emojis are not quite like the real thing.
 

Keep eye contact

But although your audience may be many miles away, there are still ways you can – and should – create a sense of connection with them. Your presentation will have much more impact if you do.

Whether the event is live or recorded, at least start with your webcam on (unless you really can only use slides). If it’s an option and feels appropriate, consider keeping your camera on throughout – remember, you are the presentation as much as any visuals.

If you will be on display, make sure you know where your webcam’s lens is and at key moments of your talk look directly into it – and out at your audience – to punctuate those points.

And don’t look at a second screen to cue up your PowerPoint – viewers will think your attention is wandering.
 

Engage your online audience

Being an engaging speaker is always important, but remember that the online world is already a place we associate with distraction. It’s also easier for a viewer behind their laptop to disguise their wandering attention than it would be for one in an auditorium or boardroom.

This isn’t to say your audience don’t want to give you their attention. But it is more important than ever to keep your presentation sharp and concise. Revisit your structure, your script or cue cards and your slides. Take a really critical eye to it and (as always) delete, delete, delete anything that’s not directly relevant.

If it works for your format, you can look at making your presentation interactive. You can then break the content into short segments, interspersed with comment, polls, questions and discussion. The variety will be a welcome change for your viewers.

Your visuals are part of what will keep people with you – along with the interplay you create between you and them. This means following the best-practice guidance we covered earlier is even more important.
 
Using Zoom for your presentation? Master the art of online delivery through this simple mix of set-up, delivery and technical tricks @EmphasisWriting Click To Tweet
 

Modulate your voice

Your tone of voice is extremely important here because presenting online is like radio with pictures. When people say ‘You have a great voice for radio’ what they mean is that it’s easy to listen to, often because you’re using quite a low-pitched, warm and relaxed register.

Listen to voices on the radio and voiceovers and identify the ones you particularly enjoy. What do you like about them? Why do you enjoy some voices and not others?

A flat, unmodulated voice, for instance, is difficult to listen to for long periods (and isn’t likely to inspire anyone).

Experiment with intentionally adding energy to your voice, as internet audio can have a dulling effect. As our trainer Gary Woodward puts it: ‘Turn up the enthusiasm dial even higher than you think, to make sure it comes through.’ And always vary your pace and tone as you would in a normal conversation.

And if it suits the tone of your talk, smile now and again. Smiling is contagious, and people will hear it in your voice even if they can’t see you.
 

Perfect your transitions

One of the other key challenges of remote presentations is that you have another layer of technology to wrestle with: sharing your PowerPoint online.

This means that many presentations begin with the popular catchphrase ‘Can you see my screen?’

This can also cause many presenters to stumble through their transitions, making the links between their slides clunky. And while remote audiences may be forgiving, for a slick presentation it’s best to prevent these sort of fumbles.

Naturally, practice plays a part here. But you can also give yourself the advantage with your set-up.

Dave Paradi from Think Outside the Slide explains one great way of setting up Zoom so you can smoothly cue up and run your slide deck – and be certain what’s being displayed.

You’ll even be able to see the rest of your screen (but the audience won’t). As you’ll be able to see what’s coming up, your transitions can also be seamless.

The trick is to use one of Zoom’s advanced settings after you hit ‘Share screen’, to share only a portion of your screen:
 
Share a portion of your screen in Zoom
 

This will give you a frame you can move to the part of the screen you want the audience to see.

Put your PowerPoint slides into ‘presenter view’ before launching the screenshare. Then you’ll be able to see the upcoming slides and your notes throughout, and your animations (like build slides) will work as normal.
 
Using PowerPoint presenter view with Zoom portion of screen

Zoom’s ‘portion of screen’ setting: your audience will see only what’s within the frame

 

The other part of the trick? Set it up in advance shortly before you’re due to speak. Once you’re happy with the set up, you can stop sharing until it’s time to kick off your talk. When you return to ‘Share screen’ again, it will reopen the frame in the same place.

Dave shows you the process in this video:
 

 

Five practical tips for a truly professional online presentation

You’re happy with the content of your talk, you’ve ruthlessly streamlined your slides and mastered your radio voice. Now just make sure you cover these crucial practicalities for a polished presentation:

1. Create a good space
Make sure you have your environment well set up:

  • Keep the background on display as tidy and minimalist as possible – a plain wall or backdrop is great, if you can.
  • Manage and minimise background noise (shut the window, ensure your phone’s on silent, put the cat out, make sure someone’s watching the kids in another room – whatever it takes).
  • Check your lighting: have your light source in front of you, not behind you (or you’ll be in shadow).
  • Set up your computer or device at eye level so that you are well-framed and facing it straight on – avoid looming above it while providing a lovely view into your nostrils.

 
2. Think about your appearance
Dress in the same way you would if the presentation were in person, and judge your choice of attire based on the formality of the event and your audience.
 
3. Practise!
Run through the presentation and rehearse the technical side. Practise your transitions, including the initial cueing up of your slides (perhaps using the Zoom tip above), so that you can be confident in doing it all smoothly.
 
4. Be primed and ready
Log in early on the day of your talk. Check all your tech is working, get your headset on and ensure everything is set up well ahead of time. This will save any last-minute issues (and stress) and means you can hit the ground running.
 
5. Stand and deliver
Even online, consider giving your presentation standing up, if you can do so comfortably (adjusting your device or webcam accordingly). This may put you more into a presenting frame of mind and will differentiate you from most remote presenters.
 

Are you still there?

Live audiences have a group dynamic – as soon as a few people start laughing it becomes infectious and the others join in. It’s naturally different online. But that doesn’t have to throw you.

You might not get that immediate feedback, but don’t overcompensate and feel you have to win them back.

Yes, it’s often more difficult to gauge an audience’s reaction online – especially if their audio is muted and their webcams off. Yes, this can be daunting. But they are still out there listening. You may or may not hear (or see) laughter, but they could still be smiling and very interested in what you have to say. Have faith in your own content.
 

Whatever form your delivery will take, keep coming back to your purpose and message for giving this talk – and keep considering the people you’ll be talking to. Whether the address will be online or in person, it is keeping this focus which is the key to every powerful presentation.
 


 
Ready to learn even more? Work one-to-one on your presentation-writing skills with one of our expert trainers or join our scheduled presentation-writing courses. If your team are looking to upskill, we also offer tailored in-house training.

 

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