How to Structure a Presentation for Maximum Impact

Michelangelo's Knowledge of Anatomy - Mose

The most popular article I've written in the last 14 years is about persuasive speech. How popular? Hundreds of page views per day. It was picked up by Google Classroom and is being used by two dozen education institutions.

Humans have wanted to persuade others since forever. The art of getting our way is most appealing in dozens of situations. From family and friends to work settings knowing how to structure what you say can make or break a deal or a relationship. So why is it that we spend little time learning how to argue our case?


What's the art of persuasion?

First off, I'd like to clear a misunderstanding: persuasion is not manipulation.

Persuasion is the art of giving someone enough information

so they can make up their own mind,

and decide based upon what they want to do and the job that needs to get done. That's where you apply your skill, experience, and knowledge, to the job to get done.

A story to illustrate.

At the end of 2012, Newsweek stopped print publication and transitioned to all-digital. It was a widely distributed newsweekly through the 20th century, with many notable editors-in-chief over the years. But the print medium and business model were not going to translate exactly in the same way(s) online.

I was the agency strategist who came up with a method to test a more sustainable digital model that combined advertising, subscriptions, and word of mouth. It was a work of love, partnering with creative to show not tell how it would work.

The presentation was a conversation with visuals at their New York City offices. We won the work. Then the magazine was sold by the then owners and nothing came of our proposal. But I still remember how it felt: thinking we could help transform a storied publication dating back to 1933.

In constructing the case, I focused on how we could help wean the publication from relying on ads and/or subscriptions alone. I had worked with a creative designer to demonstrate potential flows for the digital experience based on simple settings. The idea was to test lots of possible combinations of content and payment/reward mechanisms to find the most used options by readers and build iterating from there.

It was a big idea that addressed the challenge media companies have been facing head on. Success in a presentation often obscures a critical component: the answer is often not easy, nor obvious, and it requires the collaboration and commitment of all parties involved to make it work.


Every presentation is a conversation

The overarching theme of that conversation is: can I trust you?

Will working with you make me smarter? Will I look good with my boos/client? Will this save headaches and time? Hence, can you actually do what you promise? Are you being realistic about what it takes to get it done? In other words, you're not just saying it to please or get the gig, then scramble to fulfill.

It's you and the team, and also the conversation that is going on in the head of your audience. In fact, you're actively competing not with other agencies, nor with other tools. When you present an idea, you're competing with the ideas, memories, and habitual thoughts in the head of the person or people you present to.

The actual work is addressing the subtext: can I trust you? In every possible way. Even if you're the only person talking out loud, you're in an active conversation throughout. That's why when I work on an idea to present, I start with a script. A deck is not the main course, you are.

  • Talking about background stuff is a waste of time. Imagine if  before this is a day I've been looking forward to for two and a half years,” Steven Jobs had detailed what had happened in the years before Apple launched the iPhone. What a snooze!
  • Reading the slides out loud is a waste of time. The quotes you may use in a deck are there as reminders. You paraphrase to convey the meaning, not read to sound clever.
  • Using the slides as crutches is a waste of time. Even arresting visuals need to strike the appropriate emotional tone. Sometimes wow is a result of subtlety.

Every successful presentation or pitch is like one of the best monologues. It demonstrates you understand the psychology, politics, and preferences of your audience

and still manage to say what needs saying, so you can do good work.

That's why I'm a huge fan of movie scripts. I go back to favorite movies to draw the energy from the words and the delivery.

Do you want integrity and respect? Academy Award winning role, Lt. Col. Frank Slade makes a compelling, no frills speech to help his charge Mr. Charlie Simms stay at the Baird School. I'm talking about the mesmerizing Al Pacino's scene in Scent of a Woman. (pardon the language). Here's that scene, and the entire script.

Perhaps a gentler approach works better. After one too many run-ins with the law, Will’s last chance is a psychology professor, Sean Macguire, who might be the only man who can reach him. Finally forced to deal with his past, Will discovers that the only one holding him back is himself. A gentle, persuasive Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. The movie's synopsis and script.

How about using love and restraint? Useful for cautioning a colleague, or navigating uncharted territory. Sister Aloysius, played without a hint of humor by Meryl Streep, is not a caricature. The power struggle with modernity is real. At the center of the story is a dialogue between Sister Aloysius and Mrs. Miller. In seven minutes, Viola Davis delivers the emotional heart and soul of Doubt. Davis had one scene and was nominated for an Oscar for it. One scene. Here's Davis talking about her nerves when auditioning for the role everyone wanted. The script.


Doing your best work

The best work has no jargon, no frills, just layer upon layer of rationale and emotional insights delivered with wit, humility and effortless charm. Here's British advertising legend David Aboott (AMV/BBDO) in a plain speak forty-minute video sharing observations with client BT that seem just common sense. He seeks to help and advise.” Then goes ahead and creates it's good to talk memorable campaign, starring Bob Hoskins.

Viola Davis' Mrs. Miller has a near-miraculous level of believability … Davis, in her small, one-scene role, is incredibly moving … [she] plays her character, an anxious, hardworking woman who's just trying to hold her life and family together, by holding everything close. She's not a fountain of emotion, dispensing broad expression or movement; instead, she keeps it all inside and lets us in. [Mike Madden, Salon ] She towers over an amazing Meryl Streep—with just the one scene.

And that's the point: your best work is as supporting character in someone else's story. The second most popular article I've written talks about the paradox of our age. In it, I analyzed the meme and the actual paradox. And here's the paradox of how to structure a presentation for maximum impact:

you can know only the elements, but the combination and tempo

are a product of the moment and situation.

Elements of a good product launch presentation:

  • paint the world as could be
  • establish what is
  • create contrast
  • keep attention with suspense
  • include a wow factor
  • keep people engaged during a demo
  • include use cases through testimonials
  • keep the enthusiasm high to the end
  • be prepared for something to go wrong: relevant stories work here

You're still in conversation with your audience whether it's one or many. Your energy and enthusiasm, the rhythm and pace are the special effects. Plan for real-time feedback, make interruptions part of the experience, whenever possible show rather than tell.

The image above is a detail of Michelangelo's Moses. It shows a complete grasp of anatomy: that muscle the arrow points to is connected with a raised pinky. Another great place to look for inspiration is classical music. Mozart is a favorite. His sonatas have a beginning or exposition, middle or development, and end or recapitulation.

Conductor Ben Zander says contrast keeps things interesting while the music longs for a home, or place of resolution. The human ear recognizes when we're away from the tonic key and when we're on it. It really does make a difference what we say.

We want to be heard, and at the same time we seek to be understood when the words that come back to us either reassure, expand upon, explain us to ourselves we feel at home. Before anything else, what's at stake with a presentation of maximum impact is the transfer of value.


This is my work. I'm a cultural lens for reading the world. I do the work so that your work becomes easier, richer, and more satisfying. Durability comes from having a cultural link.

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