May 192014
The message of a presentation is like water

The biggest presentation problem

The biggest problem with most presentations isn’t that the slides are lackluster. It’s not that the message is missing (though, that’s a close second,) or that the presenter lacks confidence.

No, the biggest problem with presentations is that, too often, they lack a clear structure.  You know the kind: someone walks in, starts talking, shows a bunch of slides, and then leaves.

When I give workshops on presentation structure, I often begin by asking if someone is thirsty and would like a drink of water. I then bring a pitcher of water over to my unfortunate volunteer, ask her to tip her head back and threaten to begin pouring. If that doesn’t work, I ask her to hold out her hands to catch the water as I pour. (I usually stop before anyone gets very wet.)

In order for me to get the water to her, I have to provide it to her in a form in which she can drink it. For example, we usually give water structure in a glass.

The glass gives form to the water, enabling the delivery.

The same is true with a presentation. If the content is put into a well-organized structure, it’s a gift to the two parties involved: the presenter and the audience.

With a structured presentation you get to serve your message, and your audience gets to drink it. Structure can help solve the message, slides and confidence problems.

Permission marketing

A presentation is the ultimate form of permission marketingA presentation is for getting people’s attention and interacting with them. Unlike a memo, an email or a conference call, it’s personal, verbal and visual.

In fact, a presentation is one of the most personal things that happen in business; it is a small moment of contact between you and your audience. This small moment can have a very large impact on your business success. It is, after all, how ideas get brought to development, how partnerships get made, and how products and services are sold.

Most of the time people choose to come to a presentation. (OK sometimes it is their job to be there, but they have consciously walked into the room and taken a seat.) It is the ultimate form of permission marketing. At least for the first minute (or so) you have their attention.

After that it’s all about connection.

Thus, it is less about what you want to say, and more about what they are able to hear.

After all, if your message is important, then it is vital that you reach your audience and that they take your message home with them in their memories.

They can’t do that if they were sleeping or checking their email.

So how will you keep them engaged?

A comfortable audience is a receptive audience

If a presentation is structured well, the audience feels comfortable. They know that they are in good hands. They understand how the arguments flow from one to the other. They will get the information they came to get.

The audience feels the structure; they experience the structure. A good structure doesn’t need to be spelled out.

A James Bond movie is an example of a structure that is the same each time.For example, the director of a James Bond film never starts his film this way, “I want to give you a roadmap to this movie. This film has an introduction, three acts and a conclusion. It will seem like the villain has won at the end of act 2. Something unexpected happens in the conclusion, but Bond will prevail and get the girl in the end.”

(In fact, introductions outlining the structure are a certain way to persuade the audience to reach for their pillows and blankets.)

Every Bond film has exactly the same structure, as do most movies. Far from making people bored, the structure is part of the reason audiences keep coming. They are used to it, and that makes them feel safe. In this case, familiarity breeds comfort.

Attention span

Attention spans in a presentationResearch on attention spans has shown that most adults can focus on a presentation for 15 to 20 minutes before their attention wanders.

The most information is absorbed in the first 5 minutes. During the second 10-15 minutes (thus, until the 15-20 minute mark) information retention is lower, but still quite high. After that, people start thinking about other things than your presentation.

That’s when the smart phones start coming out of your listeners’ pockets, for example.

My advice is to boil your ideas down to 18-20 minute blocks, no more. Within those 18-20 minute blocks, plan changes at strategic moments. These could be physical activities, doing something unexpected (like threatening to pour water on audience members), or even switching off the slides, for example. For more information see the infographic on presentation structure and timing below.

The best presentation structure

The boiling down is where the work comes in.

The best presentation structure.

Einstein explained relativity in 5 symbols: E=MC2.

We’re not Einstein, so we need 18-20 minutes.

Here’s a way to divide them up:

  • Introduction  2 minutes
  • Section 1        5 minutes
  • Section 2        5 minutes
  • Section 3        5 minutes
  • Conclusion    2 minutes

You’ve had to condense your ideas to their essence, but you have a chance at everyone’s attention the whole time. You will also have a questions and answers period in order to go into more depth on the things that directly interest your audience.

The 20-minute form isn’t just based on psychological research, though. We experience it all the time.

I borrowed part of the structure from sitcoms (for example The Office or Friends). It’s the length of the opening movement of Classical symphonies, it’s how long it takes to eat the main course of your dinner, and it’s the length of the world famous TED talks.

We do many things by threes (or fives): most pop songs have an ABA (or ABABA) form, nice meals are starter, main course and dessert (sometimes with an amuse bouche before and coffee at the end), and James Bond movies (for example) have 3 acts with an introduction and conclusion.

We’re familiar with it, it’s successful and it works.

Let’s start using it.

A map to keep your nerves under control

Besides being a great help in communication, the structure of your presentation is the map that shows you where you are going while you are giving the presentation.

  • If you know what the second example of the third section is, then you won’t feel lost.
  • If you know what your conclusion is, you won’t mumble your way to a weak ending.
  • If you know which examples are less important, you will know what to leave out if, for some reason, you run out of time.

If you have a solid structure, you won’t need to read from the slides. You will know what your points are, because they will be structural elements. Your examples won’t be bullets anymore, they will be sound bites that stay in your audience’s memory.

Finally, a good structure gives you control over timing. You will know exactly how long each section is, how to get from one section to the next, and what to expect from your audience’s attention span.

How to organize your presentation

How to make a great presentation

Click for a large version


Start with a story, a surprising fact, a connection to your audience. Make them want to continue to listen. Talk about a general aspect of your subject, then move to your POINT: the one thing that you are there to talk about. (For more on the Point, see my post on presentation skills.)


Talk about 3 aspects of your point that are most important for bringing the audience to your point of view.

Each aspect has 3 persuasive examples of why that aspect supports the point. These examples can be stories, case studies, facts, statistics, lists (bullets), objects, actions, handouts, quotations, pictures, benefits, graphs, tables, charts, sounds, videos…

Try for a mix of emotional examples and logical examples. Ideally, there should be twice as many emotional examples (stories, benefits, pictures) as factual (logical) examples.


Restate your point, now that your audience has learned more about it. Close with a call to action: a quick statement of how their world will be better for choosing your point of view.

Presentation solutions

Once you have the basic form of your content under control (there’s more info in the infographic, above), you can then move on to how you will give your presentation, particularly with regard to visual elements.

You will know what you are going to say and what you need for your visuals. For more help, see my article on presentation slides.

A great structure, like this one, helps solve the other big presentation problems: the slides, the message, and your confidence. If you use it, you will be able to keep your audience’s attention, and you will have satisfied their thirst.

Of course, it’s not the form that’s interesting, it’s what you do with it. If you want some further advice, please send me an email:

Jonathan Talbott founded TIP (Talbott International Presentations) in 2012 with the ambition to make the world more interesting, one presentation at a time. He is internationally recognized for helping his clients create and deliver presentations that go straight to the point and achieve results. He has helped hundreds of people and companies improve their pitches (small presentations), which has led to a direct increase in their bottom line. For longer presentations, his clients have included both small and multinational companies, non-profits, start-ups and political parties. TIP is based in The Hague in the Netherlands.

Copyright © 2014, Jonathan Talbott

  3 Responses to “3 presentation problems, and 1 solution”

  1. I found this really helpful thanks J

  2. Another quality post, I will put this into practice.

  3. The presentation structure that you have provided in this article is really helpful for the newbies. They can really get the presentation right with this technique.

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