Did your last presentation make a difference?

How to avoid death by PowerPoint. Martin Sykes explains the secret of a successful presentation.

I recently attended a three day conference where many different senior IT roles were represented. Some sessions had strong technical content, others had plenty of data and recommendations for improving the way we work. As I sat through the sessions I became more and more depressed.

Winning the audience

With a total audience of a thousand people, and an opportunity to drive process improvements, we were assaulted with bullet points and clipart that drove most attendees to their inboxes to handle life’s daily details instead of understanding the changes being proposed. 

I have a simple philosophy, if you’re going to put in the effort to prepare and deliver a presentation, and others are prepared to spend the time listening to it, then it should make a difference. I talked to other attendees about their recollection of the sessions they had attended and it was clear, twenty four hours after the event most could not remember what the key message had been.

You might be excused for forgetting some of the details – but not the key message.

A ray of hope

One keynote presenter, Alison Levine, got it right. In 2010 she joined an elite group of under 30 people around the world who can claim to have climbed the highest peak on every continent (including Antarctica) and skied to both Poles. In her presentation we heard about the way she formed a team to climb Mt Everest, failed, and then returned to try again. This was one long adventure, delivered as a series of short stories to make key points about leading teams to achieve difficult goals. When I looked around the room, with all 1000 attendees, some had indeed opened their laptops or taken their phones out to check mails. But this time they were just draining their batteries as everyone sat and listened to the presentation while their keyboards were left untouched.

Don't just replace bullet points with pictures.

A recent trend has seen the bullet point replaced with the smiling face or emotive visual. This can help to stop the presenter reading their slides and recapture the audience’s attention for a moment. All too often though these pretty visuals are still a disjointed selection of clipart and photos that fail to influence the audience. So what is missing?

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Alison Levine had great visuals of the team during their adventure on Everest. She also had slides with words to reinforce the key messages and physical props for some stories. What these had in common was clear continuity through the presentation, and a complete relevance to the presentation. Each picture was a clear part of the story of a specific incident which was then followed by the lesson that she wanted to bring to the audience.

You need a holistic approach

There is certainly no silver bullet that improves a dull presentation, or a standard formula that works every time. But there are a range of techniques that can help deliver a more effective presentation – a 

You don’t need to climb mountains to have stories your audience want to hear

Martin Sykes, author and IT professional

focus on the content that filters out all irrelevant details; an understanding of how the audience will react to the content; a defined structure and characterisation in the story that imparts a sense of urgency; and a visual design that clearly integrates the message to lead directly to the conclusion.

How to use the specific case to make your point

Alison demonstrated a number of great techniques in her presentation. The most effective was the use of short specific examples to illustrate key points. You can do the same. Start with a specific experience you can tell as a short story that your audience can relate to. Build out a generic point you want to make from the specific situation, then give your audience a recommendation based on this point. Then repeat the process, or stop.

You don’t need to climb mountains to have stories your audience want to hear. In another great session a presenter simply started interacting with the audience and asked them to recount difficult conversations they had experienced with customer CIOs and the lessons they had learned. Everyone has stories and experiences - you just need to put in a little extra effort to use them to make a difference in your presentations.

Find out more about the techniques described by Martin Sykes in Stories that Move Mountains: Storytelling and Visual Design for Persuasive Presentations.


Martin Sykes has over 25 years’ experience in IT and has worked as an IT Strategy and Enterprise Architecture Director in major organizations, as a CTO in the public sector and currently as the Practice Excellence Director in the Microsoft Services Enterprise Strategy & Architecture practice.

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