How to structure a presentation

A compelling presentation basically tells a story. It may not seem like it, but successful presentations all use the basic structure associated with stories. They have a beginning, a middle and an end. Planning with this in mind will help clarify what you wish to say, when you should say it, and how to tie the threads of your presentation together.

The beginning

The beginning shapes the rest of the presentation and serves two main purposes:

1. To grab the attention of your audience.

2. To calm the elevated levels of adrenaline racing through your bloodstream, so that you can relax into your presentation.

Of course, experienced presenters will know how to deal with pre-show nerves. But beginners should start their presentation with something that they feel confident will draw the audience’s attention. Don’t take any risks with your opening lines if you are already in unfamiliar territory. The audience’s reaction to your beginning could make or break the rest of the presentation. A good opener will put you, and the audience, at ease. A bad one may be misunderstood, and no matter how thick-skinned you may be it is hard to present when members of the audience look uninterested.

There is no definitive right or wrong attention-grabber – simply begin with something that you are comfortable with, and which seems to work. Here are a few suggestions:

1. A funny story, if you feel able to deliver one with humour. Avoid religious, sexual, sexist or racist jokes.

2. A short video clip – make sure that it is less than 60 seconds.

3. Unusual or interesting statistics about your industry or about your audience. These should be well-researched. Members of the audience may know more than you. Getting the statistics wrong would make you look amateur.

4. A short animation. Cartoon-like shorts can be created easily with various graphic design programs or by professional designers. Alternatively, animations are available online ready for use.

5. A touch of suspense. For example, walk on with a cardboard box and place it in the middle of the stage – but don’t tell people what it is there for. This option is probably best if practised beforehand with a trial audience of friends or colleagues. They will ensure that your prop doesn’t just confuse people.

The middle

The rule of three is a good technique for the middle section of a presentation.

The rule of three is based on the idea that three is the optimum number of points to form a pattern of information that sticks in the memory. In oratory it comes up all the time. Here are some examples:

“Friends, Romans, countrymen”

“The good, the bad and the ugly”

“Blood, sweat and tears”

Think about it – if there are only three points that you would like to leave the audience with, what would they be? These three points should form the middle of the presentation.

All you now have to do is to think of ways of illustrating these points and then you have the bulk of the structure of the presentation.

The end

The end is more important than the beginning. This is because of the recency factor – put simply, people are likely to remember the last thing they are told much more than the points made earlier in a presentation. This particularly applies to lists.

So a good ending to the presentation is essential. There are a number of techniques that can work well, but they should link in to the main structure of the presentation.

Relating the end back to the beginning can be effective. If you opened with a funny story, remind the audience of the punchline and the point you sought to illustrate in telling it. If you brought an unusual object on stage to create suspense, then tell the audience why it is there.

If you are really struggling for ideas and want to play it safe, you could simply recap the three main concepts that you put forward in the middle section.

In many business settings a presentation ending would also benefit from a call to action. Tell the audience where they can find out more about you or your business. Offer contact details so that anyone with a question or enquiry can easily get in touch. If the audience has enjoyed your story, they may well want to hear more.


Published On: 13th Jun 2011

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  1. i thnink it was very good and detailes it made scence and it gave me a better perspective on hoew to do homework it gave me an fantastic picture on things and all the information could be absorbed easilly but i think if the writing was
    was broken up in to little bits such as bullet points it would have been much easir to read and

    Anonymous 13 Jan at 9:36 am
  2. Nice article, but you need to provide real world example structures.

    David Gasther 29 Jun at 4:53 pm
  3. Thanks for this. Great little article and very concise. Like the stage prop the idea and the rule of three.

    Kristian Olson 14 Aug at 5:44 pm