Four Elements of a Great Presentation

The longer I’m in the coaching business, the more I realize how helpful it can be to break a skill or behavior down into its component parts.  There’s something about knowing what the ingredients are—the recipe, if you will—that makes it easier to learn or improve a behavior.

Several years ago a colleague and I developed a model that breaks presentation skills down into 4 main areas.  Most people are naturally good in some areas, and need to develop in others.  Whether you are coaching someone on their presentation, or working on your own, I encourage you to think in terms of these four elements:

Content and slides.  The content of a presentation consists of the speaker’s words.  It’s the “script”.  This includes the key ideas, overall structure and flow of the presentation (introduction, middle and end), word choice, use of stories, analogies, metaphors, humor, and other rhetorical devices.  Content  is the foundation of a great presentation, because no matter how excellent the delivery people don’t really want to listen if you don’t have something important and engaging to talk about.

Some presentations also use slides or another form of media (audio, video), or props, to support the speaker’s message.  Media can help add power and impact to a presentation, but as I often say to speakers, remember that the slides are not the presentation, you are the presentation.  In some cases slides become a crutch, a distraction and a hinderance.  In recent years some organizations have banned or restricted the use of slides.

Body language.  Our bodies are one of the chief tools we use in presentations and for communication in general.  Human beings are hard wired to respond to each others’ body language.  So are other animals, in fact.  If you want to see how primal body language is, watch a dog.  We used to have a dog who, after stealing food from the table or engaging in other unapproved activities, would put her head down with ears flopped forward in a posture of unmistakable apology (that was our unscientific interpretation).  But it’s the same with people.  Posture, eye contact, movement–they all communicate a great deal about what we are thinking or feeling.

Standing tall, making connecting eye-contact and moving with purpose can go a long way towards conveying confidence.  Being more intentional about body language can do a lot to impact how you are perceived, but also has added benefit of impacting your thinking and feeling from the outside-in, as is famously pointed out in a TED talk by Amy Cuddy.

Voice.  Although our voices are produced by our bodies, usually I think of voice and body language as discrete, in part because just like body language, the human voice conveys a whole universe of information.  The speed, inflection, pitch, pacing, volume and use of pauses in a speaker’s voice can convey tremendous nuance.  Generally, speakers are more engaging when they include some variety in the inflection and timing of their voice, and when they avoid extremes of speed and volume.

To get a sense of the power of voice, watch a good movie or TV show and pay attention only to the actors’ voices.  Great actors—and great presenters—use the full range of subtleties in their voices to engage their audiences and convey feeling and information.

Authenticity.  Authenticity is about how self-aware a speaker is about what’s truly important to them, and how transparently they communicate those interior truths.  Authenticity is conveyed through content, body and voice but I have broken it out as a separate category because it is so foundationally important to building trust with an audience.  And trust is, of course, the foundation of any relationship.  I emphasize this because all presentations involve a relationship between a speaker and their audience.  One of the most frequent tips I give speakers is to stop thinking of their presentation as a performance, and instead think of it as a conversation, a relationship with the audience.

A key path to improving your presentation skills

One great exercise to help you develop your skills as a speaker is to assess other speakers you see in terms of these 4 elements.  Whether you are watching a TED talk, a colleague, or an actor, pay close attention to each of the elements.  What works or doesn’t work about their content, body language, and voice?  Pick one of the 4 elements and pay attention to it alone.  Do they seem authentic to you, and if so why?  Is it because they are talking about something that’s truly important to them?  Is it because they have taken a risk in disclosing something personal?

The better you understand each of these domains, the more fluent you are in observing them and talking about them, the more easily you can improve your own presentation skills, and help others.