Career SkillsLessons on Leadership

Four Tips for Making a Great Presentation

By Jacquelyn Adams

Here’s the scene: You’re sitting down to create a presentation, but all you see is a blank slide or template. As you stare into that great void and feel the all-encompassing emptiness of that solitary cursor, the daunting task of creating a deck rests heavily on your shoulders. How will you get the message across to your audience? Where do you even begin? Fear not, bold presenter! Here are some tips from Janine Kurnoff, Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of The Presentation Company, that will help you take that empty deck and turn it into a compelling presentation.

Avoid the trap of images first

The first step is to avoid the trap that has caught me so many times — the urge to start with images right out of the gate. In the past, if I wasn’t sure what to present, I would spend countless hours searching for a chart or picture. Perhaps something will inspire me or help me come up with a visual hook. However, the sad truth is that choosing great visuals does not create a great story. If your visual isn’t tied to a well-thought-out narrative, it can be a distraction that leads the audience astray. Or, as I like to think of it, putting great visuals in a lousy presentation is like putting lipstick on a pig. That’s why Kurnoff advises, “Think story first, visuals second. So many people jump to the deck because it gives us instant gratification and makes us feel closer to the finish line.” Instead, let’s avoid the trap and build our presentation’s narrative before we jump into images.

Walk in your audience’s shoes

Sorry if this one hurts a bit, but… a great presentation is never about you. While we, for the most part, know our audience, crafting a memorable story that resonates with people means that you’re connecting with what’s most important to them. What is your audience’s current situation? The obstacles they’re facing? What is their current mindset? And, if there are multiple people in the audience, who are they, and how are their needs different? Presenting to executives? Make sure you’re clear on what problem they’re trying to solve. Sharing an update? Clearly understand what each person in the room needs to know so that what you’re sharing is relevant. A pro-tip Kurnoff shares with everyone is, “Putting your audience’s needs at the center of your story instantly makes everyone sit up and pay attention to what you’re presenting.”

Start with an outline

Just as we wouldn’t launch into making a movie or writing a novel without an outline and rough idea of our story, we should treat our presentations with the same forethought. However, too often we grab our favorite slides from pre-existing decks or borrow that killer graph from the marketing department and start shuffling them into a “presentation” with a story that makes no sense. Kurnoff calls this a “Frankendeck.” It’s a cobbled-together collection of slides that look different, sound different, and often ends up leaving an audience confused. Rather than a coherent story, we’ve created a monster!

To tell a great story, we, as storytellers, need a clear outline of what that narrative is. So before we start building the deck, we need to outline the setting, characters, conflict, BIG Idea (the one thing you want your audience to remember — because they won’t remember everything), and the resolution.

Without this outline, your story has no clear direction, and we miss the opportunity to influence the audience. Kurnoff cautions, “Although it doesn’t sound intuitive, the best thing to do is slow down to speed up.” This means we shouldn’t dive headfirst into building out those decks (and waste a bunch of time). Instead, focus on understanding your audience and what they care about before organizing your ideas and data into a clear narrative. Then, and only then, should you start building your deck.

Use headlines, not headings

Finally, use headlines, not headings, to tell your story. Kurnoff recommends thinking of them like newspaper headlines. Instead of the standard vague titles like “Proposed Budget” or “Conclusion,” use headlines that provide insight into your slide’s key takeaway. This provides direction for your audience and keeps them from drawing the wrong conclusions from your data.

With this in mind, here are a few vague titles upgraded to good headlines. For example, instead of “Client relationships,” we could say, “Maintaining Client Relationships Starts with Understanding our Clients.” Or instead of “Teens’ Media Habits,” a more unambiguous statement would be “Screen Time for Teens is Dominated by Social Media.” The headline is a key place to tell your story.

Kurnoff shared an exercise she teaches in her storytelling workshops — great headlines should be readable, one after the other, and plot out the points in your overall story. One should understand the narrative — slides or no slides by verbalizing just your headlines. It’s a great way to ensure you’re using headlines rather than boring old headings. Providing this clear key takeaway at the beginning of the slide helps people stay plugged into the narrative, follow where it is headed, and remain invested in the presentation.

Now, my fellow presenters, we have concluded this narrative. Thanks to Janine Kurnoff for sharing her expertise on how outlines with a clear narrative can help maintain attention and influence our audience. If your public speaking skills could also use a refresher course, be sure to check out this article for a few quick tips. Otherwise, you are ready to go. Knock that presentation out of the park, my friend!

* For more information on The Presentation Company’s storytelling workshops, visit


Jacquelyn Adams

Jacquelyn Adams, founder and CEO of Ristole, uses her column to delve into the wild world of leadership. Whether the article is about her days as a Peace Corp volunteer, exploring corporate training, or even grabbing lunch at Chipotle — she will come out with a story and her “top tips.” As she passionately believes in leveraging her platform to share others’ voices, her column welcomes guest bloggers to create a fuller and more diverse pool of experiences for her readership. So, welcome to “Lessons on Leadership” where you never know what the next article will hold: online networking advice, guidelines for creating a joyful workplace, or even puppies. Just keep reading to discover what’s next!

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