Effective Presentations

Learning Objectives

Identify key features of an effective presentation.

When you’re giving a presentation at work, you’re essentially giving an informative speech. Many of the strategies and principles discussed in Module 9: Informative Speech apply to the situation of presenting at work as well. We’ll review a few key areas below. It is also important to keep in mind, however, that the way you approach a presentation for work will differ significantly depending on the context. In the professional context, your presentation has a specific function; before you begin putting it together, you need to find out as many details as possible about the function your presentation will be performing. Are you speaking to coworkers? Potential clients? Community leaders? Other experts in the field? Keep in mind that your presentation fits into a larger picture that includes workplace culture, community visibility, and/or brand identity.

A person plans a presentation on a whiteboard. In some cases, it may be tempting to treat a presentation at work—for instance, an informative session for coworkers—as an unstructured information dump. Since you all work together, you can just give them the raw facts and data they need, right? Not quite. Just as much as any other speech, a presentation to coworkers should be thoughtfully structured and carefully delivered to help your audience learn what they need to learn in a context that makes sense.

The key elements of a good presentation are content, organization, and delivery. There are both substance and style aspects of content. Substance elements include the originality and significance of your idea, the quality of your research and analysis, clarity, and the potential impact of your recommendations. Style aspects of content include confidence and credibility, both of which have a significant impact on how you—and your message—are received.

Good organization starts with a strong opening and continues in a logical and well-supported manner throughout the presentation, leading to a close that serves as a resolution of the problem or a summary of the situation you’ve presented. The audience experiences good organization as a sense of flow—an inevitable forward movement to a satisfying close. This forward momentum also requires speakers to have a certain level of technical and information-management competency. To the latter point, good presentation requires a presenter to put thought into information design, from the structure and content of slides to the transitions between individual points, slides and topics.

Delivery entails a range of factors from body language and word choice to vocal variety. In this category, your audience is responding to your personality and professionalism. For perspective, one of the three evaluation categories on the official Toastmasters speaker evaluation form is “As I Saw You” with the parenthetical items “approach, position, personal appearance, facial expression, gestures and detracting mannerisms.” A good presenter has a passion for the subject and an ability to convey and perhaps elicit that emotion in the audience. Audience engagement—through eye contact, facial expression, and perhaps the use of gestures or movement—also contributes to an effective presentation. However, to the point in the Toastmasters evaluation, gestures, movement and other mannerisms can be distracting. What works is natural (not staged) movement that reinforces communication of your idea.

With those key features and presentation-evaluation criteria in mind, let’s add a disclaimer. The reality is that your features won’t matter if you don’t deliver one essential message: relevance.

Whether you think in Toastmasters’ terminology—”What’s in it for me? (WIIFM)” from the audience perspective—or put yourself in the audience’s position and ask “So what?” it’s a question that you need to answer early.

To Watch: Richard Mulholland, “A Formula for Delivering Effective PResentations”

In this speech, presentation coach Richard Mulholland offers a memorable formula for effective presentations: give the audience a reason to care; give them a reason to believe; tell them what they need to know; tell them what they need to do.[1]

You can view the transcript for “Richard Mulholland provides a Formula for Delivering Effective Presentations” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

Mulholland makes his point clearly by “rewriting” a TED talk he once saw (beginning at 0:53). As Mulholland points out, the topic was fascinating, but the speaker failed to give his audience a reason to care about it from the outset. In Mulholland’s version of the speech, structured according to his four-part formula, the speech no longer buries the lead; it starts with a question that will grab the attention of the audience and “give them a reason to care.”

Purpose, Audience, and Message

It may be helpful to think of your presentation as having three key moving parts or interlocking gears: purpose, audience, and message. Let’s walk through the presentation-development process at this planning level.


Generally, the first step in developing a presentation is identifying your purpose. Purpose is a multi-layered term, but in this context, it simply means objective or intended outcome. And why is this? To riff on the classic Yogi Berra quote, if you don’t know where you’re going, you might as well be somewhere else. That is, don’t waste your audience’s (or your own) time.

Your purpose will determine both your content and approach and suggest supplemental tools, audience materials, and room layout. Perhaps your purpose is already defined for you: perhaps your manager has asked you to research three possible sites for a new store. In this case, it’s likely there’s an established evaluation criteria and format for presenting that information. Voila! Your content and approach is defined. If you don’t have a defined purpose, consider whether your objective is to inform, to educate, or to inspire a course of action. State that objective in a general sense, including what action you want your audience to take based on your presentation. Once you have that information sketched in, consider your audience.


The second step in the presentation development process is audience research. Who are the members of your audience? Why are they attending this conference, meeting, or presentation? This step is similar to the demographic and psychographic research marketers conduct prior to crafting a product or service pitch—and is just as critical. Key factors to consider include your audience’s age range, educational level, industry/role, subject matter knowledge, etc. These factors matter for two reasons: you need to know what they know and what they need to know.

Understanding your audience will allow you to articulate what may be the most critical aspect of your presentation: “WIIFM,” or what’s in it for them. Profiling your audience also allows you adapt your message so it’s effective for this particular audience. That is, to present your idea (proposal, subject matter, recommendations) at a depth and in a manner (language, terminology, tools) that’s appropriate. Don’t expect your audience to meet you where you are; meet them where they are and then take them where you want to go together.

Returning to the site analysis example mentioned earlier, knowing your audience also means clearly understanding what management expects from you. Are you serving in an analyst role—conducting research and presenting “just the facts”—to support a management decision? Or are you expected to make a specific recommendation? Be careful of power dynamics and don’t overstep your role. Either way, be prepared to take a stand and defend your position. You never know when a routine stand-and-deliver could become a career-defining opportunity.


The third step is honing your message. In “TED’s Secret to Great Public Speaking,” TED Conference curator Chris Anderson notes that there’s “no single formula” for a compelling talk, but there is one common denominator: great speakers build an idea inside the minds of their audience. Ideas matter because they’re capable of changing our perceptions, our actions, and our world. As Anderson puts it, “Ideas are the most powerful force shaping human culture.”[2]

So if ideas are that powerful, more is better, right? Perhaps a handful or a baker’s dozen? Wrong. As any seasoned sales person knows, you don’t walk into a meeting with a prospective client and launch into an overview of every item in your company’s product or service line. That’s what’s known as “throwing spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks.” And that’s an approach that will have you wearing your spaghetti—and perhaps the dust from one of your client’s shoes on your backside as well. What audience members expect is that you’ve done your homework, that you know them and their pain, and that you have something to offer: a fresh perspective, an innovative approach, or a key insight that will change things for the better. As Chris Anderson says, “Pick one idea, and make it the through-line running through your entire talk.”[3] One message, brought vividly and relevantly to life.

So now that you have a macro view of the presentation-development process, let’s review what can—and often does—go wrong so we can avoid the common mistakes.

Practice Question

  1. Mulholland, Richard, and Mann, Howard. Boredom Slayer: A Speaker’s Guide to Presenting Like a Pro. Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2018.
  2. Anderson, Chris. “TED’s Secret to Great Public Speaking.” TED, March 2016.
  3. Anderson, Chris. “TED’s Secret to Great Public Speaking.” TED, March 2016.