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Designing an Influential Presentation
By Ellen Finkelstein   Printer Friendly Version

Let's face it; presenting is all about-facing it-your audience, that is. These days, presenting your case often means creating a presentation using PowerPoint or other similar presentation program.

To create a winning presentation, you need to know how to tailor it for your audience - and then how to present it effectively.

The first step is to decide on your content. All the bells and whistles in a presentation program can make you forget that you still have to say something that will influence your audience. Using fancy graphics with whiz-bang animation doesn't relieve you of the responsibility to carefully plan and organize the text. Believe me, your audience will see right through you if you don't.

Basically, all presentations should follow this structure:

  1. Attention-getting opener
  2. Brief overview of the topic
  3. Describe what your audience needs, that is, the problem
  4. Explain how your solution meets that need
  5. Tell how your audience can implement your solution - that is, action steps
  6. Brief summary and conclusion

Of course, in order to describe what your audience needs, you need research your audience. A cardinal rule of presenting is to find out as much as you can about your audience-before you create your presentation. In a worst-case scenario when no information is available in advance, chat with your audience as they enter the room to learn as much as you can- and adjust your presentation on the fly. In order to explain how you can meet their needs, you have to know your product, service, or solution thoroughly. Then, leave most of your knowledge out and include only the most important points. People can only comprehend and remember a few points in one sitting.

By organizing a presentation into this six-step structure, you can ensure a logical flow that your audience can easily follow. Also, the material in each step must be simple and organized. The best way to put together a presentation in PowerPoint is to create the text using the outline pane or view. In other words, start creating your presentation without thinking about the visuals or effects. By concentrating on your text in outline form, you can easily write down your ideas, see the flow of the entire presentation at once, and move ideas from one place to another so they flow more logically. Don't forget to add examples and anecdotes as you go. Once you have completed this process, you not only have a meaningful presentation, but PowerPoint has created your entire presentation for you, slide by slide.

You're not finished yet! Now you need to add visual elements that pack a punch. Research has shown that high-quality visual effects add to the effectiveness and influence of the presentation. Visual impact contains three elements and they are all important: color, graphic images, and layout.

Consider color first because your color choice affects the background or template that you use for the entire presentation. When choosing a set of colors for your presentation, think about the overall impression you are trying to make. Do you want to evoke boldness, comfort, authority, or some other quality? Then take the following into account:

  • Whichever color your choose, make sure that all your text contrasts enough with your background to be easily legible.
  • Traditionally, dark backgrounds are used for on-screen presentations (compared to overhead transparencies) because light colors are too bright and make your audience uncomfortable. However, medium backgrounds can also work when you want a softer impact. Just make sure that the text is clearly visible.
  • Avoid certain color combinations which may be difficult to look at or which some people cannot distinguish: red/green, brown/green, blue/black, and blue/purple.
  • Use red with care because it has certain undesirable connotations, such as financial loss. However, it can be used sparingly for contrast.
  • Blue is the most common color for business presentations. To avoid the "bland blues, use a background with some variations." Green is believed to stimulate interaction and is often used by trainers and educators to generate a response.

Save one or two colors for contrast and emphasis. If you overuse them, they lose their effectiveness.

The most professional looking backgrounds are photographs or textures rather than solid colors. You can manipulate photographs in photo editing software to soften and colorize them to your chosen background color.

Next choose your graphic art. Go for emotional impact if you can. Photographs are especially effective. Avoid cartoons. The standard guideline is that 50% of your slides should have some graphic element. Don't overdo the graphics. If you add animation, keep it low key and appropriate.

Here's a professional tip: AutoShapes are especially effective to help your audience visualize your presentation's structure. For example, if your presentation has three sections, create a shape with the section's name (such as "Action Steps") and use it on each slide in the section. Vary the color for each section. Place the shape at the top or bottom of each slide.

Sloppy layout makes a presentation look unprofessional but few users know how to lay out the elements of a slide. Graphic artists create a grid on a slide to help check for balance. In PowerPoint, you can do the same thing with guides. Choose View > Guides to see the guides. To add guides, press Ctrl and drag a guide to a new location. PowerPoint has a number of other features to help you lay out a slide with precision, such as snapping to the grid and to objects, aligning and distributing objects, creating a master slide, and so on. Learn how to use these features for professional results.

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