Presentation Flow: Link Or Break

November 23, 2011

I am often asked about the flow of ideas in a presentation, and indeed it can be very hard to follow a presentation where the speaker moves from one idea to another without any transition, like a scatter-brained mother-in-law.

It is vital to ensure your presentation has a natural flow. That doesn’t mean that everything has to be completely linked, as if it were all one chain of ideas. But you should not just jump around without making that clear. Your audience shouldn’t have to play catch-up to work out what you’re talking about.

My advice is to use one of two simple devices between items. (You could interpret this as being ‘between slides’ although I prefer to talk about the parts of your presentation, because you might not be using slides at all, or perhaps not all the time.)

This is simply ‘Link or Break’.

1. Link.

This means that you need to link the new idea to the previous one. You can do this in a number of ways. You could use the list approach, as used by Steve Jobs when launching the iPhone 4. He said he would talk about 8 different features of his new phone, and then proceeded to go through them all from #1 to #8. That provides an obvious link and structure to the eight points.

You could use an acronym, and then go through the different letters – for example, at Ideas on Stage we talk about IMPACT in slide design: Image, Message, Positioning, Animation, Colour and Typography. This is another kind of list approach.

Alternatively, you can have each idea build on the previous one, as you develop your arguments. Sometimes it is useful to make this very clear: “So now we’ve seen that there’s a clear market for a new kind of widget, let’s take a look at our new iWidget.” Never assume that the flow is as obvious for your audience as it is for you. That link sentence can be all-important.

2. Break.

Sometimes, however, you’ll need to move from one point to something completely different, and there isn’t any obvious link even to you. Once again, the late Steve Jobs was a master of this.

One of his undercelebrated skills was turning the page in his presentations. He knew that it isn’t enough just to start talking about a new topic: first you have to close the previous topic properly so the audience is satisfied and ready for something new. His method was simple:

a) A one-line conclusion

b) A pause

For example, in his iPhone 4 launch in 2010, he first talked about the first three months of the iPad, with sales figures etc. Before moving on to the next part (iOS 4), he closed the chapter with a line something like:

“So that is my update for the iPad.”

His subsequent pause gave the audience time to applaud. They won’t always do that for you, but at least it will give them time to close the chapter on that part of your talk, and prepare for what you’re going to say next.

You can see the video here (this part is at around 10:20).

I personally hate watching US TV because most of the time there is no clear break before the commercials kick in, and I find myself thinking “is this part of the show?” whereas in France and the UK, there is always a clear pause with the channel’s logo and a statement that the commercials are about to begin.

Likewise, your audience will appreciate that clean break. Close the box on the last point with a simple concluding statement, pause, and then begin the next topic.


With these two simple techniques of ‘link or break’, you should ensure your presentation flows naturally, and your structure helps your audience to enjoy and appreciate your messages, and hopefully ‘get’ them, instead of leaving them perplexed and wondering what you’re talking about.

One more thing…

If you are always very clear about your links, then it will have a very strong impact when you suddenly show or say something completely unexpected.

You can use this to your advantage by showing something surprising or provocative, making people wonder why, making them listen attentively to find out why, and then explaining why it is linked.

This is a great way to get people’s attention levels up again when they might have been starting to wane. But it is only when your audience fully expects your ideas to be properly linked that you can have a positive impact with this kind of device.

Make your ideas flow properly with good links, making clean breaks when necessary, and your messages will have more impact – and your audience will thank you.

Animate Your Audience – Not Your Slides

September 6, 2011

Last week’s post about why I don’t recommend Prezi got a lot of people talking, and the consensus seems to be that even if you do find some uses for Prezi, the use of excessive animation is at best distracting and counterproductive, and at worst actually nauseating for the audience.

Animation should only be used when it helps the audience to understand a point – i.e. the movement or effect should be meaningful. Text does not need to fly in from all parts of the screen – it can just appear, or fade in, at the right time. Building up a slide point by point is fine and in fact often highly recommended – just don’t have things moving around for no reason.

‘Animation’, of course, means different things. It doesn’t just mean moving things around on the projector screen. While that kind of animation should be strictly rationed, another kind should be strongly encouraged. That’s the animation of people: specifically, you and your audience.

As you communicate with your audience, you need to be animated. I don’t mean that you should be jumping all over the place like Steve Ballmer on hot coals. But in your movement, your body language and your intonation, you need to be animated in order to keep people awake, and more than that, to animate your audience.

Move around the stage (if possible) with clear, deliberate movements, stopping in certain places, speaking for a while, then moving to another part of the stage. This has the effect of breaking up what you are saying into ‘verses’, each of which is easily digested. Make sure, therefore, that you are moving at logical break-points in your speech, and not in the middle of a paragraph. Each movement then awakens the audience to the beginning of a new ‘verse’, so it does not seem like one long monologue.

It also won’t seem like a monologue if you animate your voice. There so many ways you can modulate your voice – faster vs slower, higher vs lower, louder vs softer, excited vs dead-pan, one accent vs another, etc. – that there is no reason at all for you to use exactly the same voice (speed, pitch, volume etc.) throughout. That’s called monotony, and there’s a good reason why it is synonymous with boredom.

At the end of the day, your aim is to animate your audience. The more awake they are, the more interested they are, the more likely they are to listen to your message and do something with it afterwards. So get them involved. Get them to think. Ask them questions. Ask them to do little exercises in pairs. Ask for a show of hands on a particular point. Ask them all to stand up, and then sit down if they meet a particular condition, e.g. “you may sit down if you have never seen a boring presentation” (continue with additional conditions until only a few are left standing).

If you and your audience are more animated than your slides, then you’re doing something right. If however you spend all your time worrying about animating your slides, then you’re barking up the wrong tree.

Animate your audience – not your slides.

First Impressions Last

May 3, 2011

My wife has an amazing ability to read people and judge them within seconds of meeting them. Over the years I have challenged her many times, telling her not to judge a book by its cover but to get to know someone properly first. Time has shown that her first impressions were always right.

We don’t all have that ability – I know I don’t – but we do tend to remember our first impressions of people most. Right or wrong, first impressions certainly do last – and sometimes, they are the only impressions you’ll have the chance to give. Your first impression is your business card, in effect, and it will determine whether a person calls you back, uses your services, or stays to listen to you.

This is just as important when you are presenting, even if your audience doesn’t have the ability to get up and leave before you have finished. There are two key reasons for this.

The first is that you need to give people a reason to want to listen to you. If you don’t make them want to listen right at the start, they probably won’t. If their first impression is that you are going to bore them senseless, their survival instinct will kick in and they will decide to do something less boring instead. Like doodling. Or email. Or tweeting. Or checking the cricket score. Or examining the inside of their eyelids.

The second is what’s known as the ‘primacy principle’. This states that people remember most what you say first. So if you have a particularly important message, you might want to say it right at the start, and then use the rest of the talk to explain why, rather than build up to it logically and methodically and then reveal your moment of wisdom at the end. A presentation is not a whodunnit. If the butler did it, say so at the start, then explain your reasoning.

So your introduction is extremely important. Here are five things you need to achieve in your first minute or so:

1. Connect with your audience. The best presentations are more about two-way communication than about simply broadcasting a message as if the audience were not there. Even if you as the presenter are doing almost all the talking, it is important to make the audience feel a part of what you are doing. For example, if you are going to present in a different country, pick up a local newspaper and find something interesting which you can mention at the start, or tell a story about what happened to you in the taxi from the airport, or last time you were there. Something like that will tell the audience that you’re not just going to give them exactly the same talk you have given ten times before to ten different audiences. It’s personal. It’s a talk specially created for them.

A few words in the local language can be powerful as well, as Presidents Kennedy and Reagan both memorably used in their Berlin speeches.

2. Establish your credibility. If your audience doesn’t respect you as an authority on your subject, they won’t listen properly. Being respected is one of the four aims of presentation, and it is one you need to achieve right at the start. Imagine an unknown presenter talks for an hour about how to become a great tennis player. Why would you listen? Then at the end, he reveals that he’s Roger Federer‘s coach. Suddenly he has immense credibility, but you can’t go back and be more attentive – it’s too late. Establish your credibility at the start (or even before you take the stage).

3. Explain the purpose. After your introduction, it should be clear to the audience what you are going to talk about, and why it is important for them. (Not for you – for them.)

4. Set expectations. This is where you make sure the audience knows what they can expect, and what they should not expect. If you’re going to talk about mobile app development but you are not going to cover Android, make that clear at the start – otherwise some people might wait and wait for you to cover Android, and then get disappointed when you don’t. You should set positive expectations – and then make sure you meet or exceed them.

5. Make them want to listen. Your introduction has to give the audience a reason to listen more. This could be because you are amazingly engaging or funny, or it could be because the problem you are talking about is relevant to them. If you are going to talk to a group of German engineers about the reproductive difficulties of Andean llamas, that could be tough, so choose your subject well, but if in fact there is a relevant engineering challenge in solving Andean llama reproduction problems, make sure that’s clear at the beginning.


First impressions aren’t always fair. If you walk into the room wet through because somebody took your umbrella, your first impression won’t be a good one. If you spend ten minutes trying to make your slides appear on the wall, that doesn’t look too good either. It’s not just about what you say.

So do everything you can to ensure that your first impressions are positive, in how you appear, what you do and what you say, and that will end up being a lasting positive impression.

Otherwise, you’ll just have to pray that my wife isn’t in the audience.

Show And Feel

March 28, 2011

American kids have a huge advantage in public speaking because from a young age, they have to “show and tell” – that is, they bring something to school, stand up in front of their class, show the object, and tell the class all about it. This should be mandatory in all schools, including high schools where many teenagers sadly unlearn the creativity and fearlessness of their childhood.

There’s another thing that presenters need to know, and that’s what I’m going to call “show and feel”. No, I am not suggesting you get tactile with your audience.

It’s quite simply that audiences will naturally tend to copy the presenter’s emotions. This is mainly down to the recently-discovered mirror neurons, which produce the same feeling when we see someone else experience something as we feel when we experience it ourselves.

I was reminded of this recently when I was at the Comédie Française watching Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. At one point Falstaff was about to take a swig of wine which he had previously found very unpleasant, and which he had doubtless forgotten. As he raised the bottle to his lips, I found that I was screwing up my eyes and nose, just like the lady in the picture above. I was feeling the disgust which Falstaff was feeling. My mirror neurons were in action.

Apply this to presenting. If you appear bored, your audience will feel bored. If you look like you really don’t want to be there, your audience won’t want to be there either.

If when you say “I’m excited about this” you sound more like Marvin the Paranoid Android than Steve Jobs, nobody will believe you are excited, and they won’t be excited either.

On the other hand, if you appear passionate about your idea, if you look like you are enjoying yourself and feeling comfortable, if you smile at appropriate times, then your audience will most likely mirror those positive emotions.

Yesterday a student in one of my classes gave a presentation where he was smiling almost all the time, laughing from time to time, and was clearly very enthusiastic about his subject. I just couldn’t help enjoying it. On the other hand, at one of the TEDx events I worked at last year, one presenter took the stage in a very bad mood, and hated his talk as much as the audience did.

If you want your audience to enjoy your talk, enjoy it yourself  – visibly. Show positive emotions, and your audience will mirror them.

Perfecting Your Pitch

March 11, 2011

Most campers pitch tents. These pitch start-ups. They are the entrepreneurs at Le Camping, the latest start-up accelerator in Paris, and my role (together with Pierre Morsa) is to help them to make a fantastic pitch on Investor Day, when they will compete for attention from various investors, and hopefully attract funding to develop their businesses.

After our latest coaching session yesterday, I’m pleased to say they have made great strides in terms of using attractive, simple and relevant slides, with few words (in most cases) and some good use of graphics. They have also mostly worked on their introductions, although some can (and must) still make them more memorable and catchy.

Some are still looking back at their slides too often, and there are still plenty of ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ to iron out. That will improve with more practice.

Four things in particular are missing though from most of the pitches, and I’d encourage everyone to think about these points in terms of your own presentations (pitches or otherwise), because they are the difference between a good performance and a great one.

Four Steps From Good To Great

1. Adapt your content to meet your audience’s objectives. They are still spending too much time talking about their products or ideas. This isn’t a sales pitch. Investors want to know you have a product that can make money, of course, but it’s the money that’s the key point there, not the product. Your product is not your business plan – it is just a way of giving investors confidence that you can achieve your business plan.

While for you it might be your big idea, for an investor it is only your first idea – and hopefully not your last. It might turn out not to work, or a major competitor with a huge cashpile might choose to enter the same market and squash you. What investors need to know is that you are smart enough to come up with other ideas and make them work if the first one doesn’t. They are investing, above all, in a team, not in a product. Better a great team with an average idea than an average team with a great idea, as investors often say. So tell them why they should trust you with their cash.

2. Vision. If I’m investing in you and your company, I want to know it’s a good bet not just now, but for the future. I want to bet on someone who’s going to make it big, or who at least will give it a damn good try. If your vision is limited to “we’re going to launch this product”, that doesn’t give me much long-term confidence. Aim high. Investors don’t want small wins – their choices fail so often that it’s only big wins that make up for the losses. Better to have a 1% chance of being a $billion company than a 20% chance of being a $10million company.

So docTrackr, for example, should not just aim to sell a great document security solution. Yawn, so what? But if they stated a vision to be the world leader in document security within 3 years, and to be bought out by Microsoft, Adobe or Google within 5 years, then as an investor, that would make me sit up and take interest.

3. Passion. If you’re trying to make me enthusiastic about your investment opportunity, I need to know and feel that you are enthusiastic about it. If you present as if you either don’t believe in it, don’t care about it, or don’t want it, then I’m not going to want it either.

Don’t be quiet. Don’t be monotonous. Don’t be boring. Enthusiasm is contagious, so if you present like you really believe this is an exciting investment opportunity and you have a fantastic team, your audience might start to believe it too. Boredom, on the other hand, is even more contagious. So if you sound flat and boring, the audience will just use your talk as an opportunity to check their email.

Be passionate. Don’t be afraid to show that you care and that you believe.

4. A great conclusion. Too many of the pitches are currently just dying, as if the speaker has run out of things to say, or run out of time. Yet the conclusion will determine whether people remember something, or nothing. So it absolutely has to be brilliant.

“OK, so that’s it. Er, any questions?”

“And that was my last slide.”

These do not make good conclusions.

“That was our introduction to Perspecteev. We make money by helping people take care of their money. Now we’d like to take care of yours. Thankyou.”

This was one of the better conclusions. It was a clear end-point, it reminded the audience of the company name and its tag-line, and it used a neat play on words to remind investors that they’re looking for funding (which was explained earlier in the pitch).

The conclusion is an opportunity to remind people of your key points. In an investor pitch, particularly in a context where there are 11 other pitches happening in the same session, your key points are:

  • who you are
  • what you do
  • what you need
  • why they should give it to you

If any of those questions remains unanswered at the end, or the audience forgets the answers, you have failed. Your conclusion should remind people of these points. Remember Lewis Carroll: “What I say three times is the truth.” Say something three times, and you significantly increase the chances of it being remembered. Say something once, however, and expect it to be forgotten. So use the conclusion to state your key points for the third time – or at least for the second time.

Think of your talk as a matchstick. When you light a match, it sparks brightly, and then starts burning slowly along the stick. That’s your high-impact introduction and the middle part of your talk. But a typical match will then just burn out. So your talk has to be like a double-headed match, with a bright, high-impact conclusion to match the introduction.

Lastly, in a context like this where the pitches will happen in front of a large audience, with no Q&A session, the intention is not to finish presenting and start discussing: each presenter should aim to leave the stage to a large round of applause. I’d therefore point you to this article where I talk about the importance of applause and how to make sure you get the audience to clap.

Adapting to your audience’s objectives, communicating vision, presenting with passion, and nailing a great conclusion: if the Campers can get these four points right in the next few weeks, they’ll be ready for Investor Day. If you can get them right for your next talk – whatever it is – you’ll turn a good presentation into a great one.

Adapt To Your Audience

March 4, 2011

Good presenters adapt to their audience. Bad presenters expect their audience to adapt to them.

It’s a simple truth but sadly few presenters truly understand it. A presenter who genuinely takes the time to understand his or her audience, their needs, their expectations, their prejudices, their generalizations, their cultural filters, their language and their knowledge – such a presenter is worth his or her weight in gold.


As I was teaching this principle to a group of executives at HEC Paris this week, I was asked a very good question:

If American and Japanese cultures and expectations are so different, why is it that Americans are so successful at doing business in Japan?

Now I’m not sure I’d agree that American companies have had great success in Japan – having worked at HP and tried to compete with the likes of Canon, Ricoh, Kyocera et al, I know first-hand that Japan is a tough market even for the biggest American companies. But I do remember from living in Tokyo that the large Western expat community there did seem to adapt well to the local culture – better, perhaps, than the equally large expat community I knew in Brussels. Fellow presentation expert Garr Reynolds is a fine example of an American who fully embraces and celebrates Japanese culture.

So it’s a valid question. Here’s the answer I came up with. I believe that expats in Japan adapt well simply because the difference in cultures is so wide, it is obvious that they need to make an effort. Therefore they do make an effort, and they show respect for their hosts’ way of life. Also, their hosts’ expectations are not always very high, so they are pleasantly surprised and indeed honoured when their expat guests do make such an effort.

On the other hand, expats in Western Europe (I speak as a Brit living now in my fourth European country) tend not to make such an effort to adapt, since they don’t notice so much of a culture gap. I do my best – my latest attempt to adapt to France is learning to play ‘belote’, a popular card game here – but I know well that many expats in France make no effort even to learn French, let alone adapt to the way of life.

So to summarize, when the culture gap is wide we realise we need to make an effort to adapt, and that effort is appreciated; whereas when the culture gap is quite small, little or no effort is made, and it is this lack of effort – more than the cultural difference – which is held against us.

Apply this to a presentation. When Steve Jobs goes to Japan, he ditches his familiar jeans and black T-shirt, and wears a suit because that is what is expected there. If you’re going to present to a group of Japanese businessmen, dress smart, be modest, and don’t expect any questions – even if that’s not your usual style.

But more than that, for any presentation at all, think first of your audience. Start not from what you know or what you want to tell them, but from where they are, and what they will benefit most from hearing. Don’t just adopt your usual style, but work out what will be best appreciated by that audience, and adapt your style accordingly. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking there’s not much difference between you and them. That’s exactly the mistake most people make.

Remember, it’s not your presentation: it’s theirs. Give them something that suits them. Not only will they notice and appreciate your effort to adapt, they might also get your message and do something with it.

Keep it simple…

February 9, 2011

“Simplicity,” said Leonardo da Vinci, “is the ultimate sophistication.” This is extremely important for your presentations. The more you can keep them simple, the better you will communicate your message(s).

This doesn’t mean making things simpler for you, the presenter (although there is plenty you can do to make your life easier). It means making things simpler for the audience – after all, the presentation is for them, not you, right?

Unnecessary complexity hinders communication and just plain annoys people. I was reminded of this by my experience yesterday with the French bureaucracy. We need to renew my son’s French passport, but before we can make the application, we need his birth certificate which has to be less than three months old. Odd.

To get this certificate, we had a choice. Either we could send a stamped addressed envelope and they would send it to us, or we could go to the nearest large town and get one printed there and then, which I chose to do. I showed my passport, gave his date of birth, and a very nice lady printed the certificate. So far, not too painful.

However, then I have to go to a different town hall to apply for the passport. Why couldn’t that be one transaction? I could just turn up with son and passport and make the application, and if they needed a birth certificate, they could print it there and then. Or even better, they could accept the original birth certificate rather than requiring one less than three months old (in other countries, you get a birth certificate at birth, and you keep it for life). Where’s the benefit to anyone of me going to get the certificate beforehand?

And the icing on the cake: before applying for the passport, we need to buy special stamps, not from the town hall, not from the post office, but from a ‘tabac’ (cigarette shop)! I’m sure there was a logic behind the design of this whole process, but it certainly wasn’t the logic of making it simple for the citizen.

Compare this with renewing their British passports, which involves sending a form by registered post with their expired passports. And they take credit cards. You’d think living in France it would be easier to renew their French passports, but it’s many times more complex.

France is a lovely country but of the five countries I have lived and worked in, it is by far the least simple for the citizen. Now, since I chose to live here, I just have to live with the bureaucracy, although I don’t have to like it. However, if the French bureaucracy were an application’s user interface, it would have no chance against well-designed competitors. And if it were a presentation, nobody would listen.

So back to presentations. Your job as the presenter is to make things as simple as possible for your audience so they understand your message. This means designing it with your audience in mind, and removing all unnecessary complexity. You can’t get all the details across in a presentation – good presentations have simple clear messages and few details – and if you try to include them all, people will likely remember very few of them. The old maxim “If you chase too many rabbits, you won’t catch any” is extremely relevant to a presentation.

Here are three tips to make it simple for your audience to understand and remember your messages:

  1. Choose one, two or three key messages, and make it clear what they are. No more than three. Don’t leave your audience thinking “So what?” or “What was her point?” – leave the audience in no doubt about the points you are making. Repeat them as well: state your key messages at least twice, and then once again in your conclusion. You’ll be amazed how this simple technique increases the audience’s retention of your messages.
  2. Use simple visuals. Get rid of all the unnecessary complexity in your slides – the visual pollution such as the date, your name and your logo, any words which don’t need to be there, any data points on a graph which are not absolutely necessary to get your message across, etc. The simpler your slides are, the more memorable they will be, and the more your audience will actually listen to what you are saying.
  3. Associate each message with an image. A large proportion of your audience will likely be visual thinkers, and it will be much easier for them to remember your messages if each of them is shown together with a powerful and relevant image. This could be a photograph, or it could be a simple and clear graph for example.

For example, I often use this image to convey the message that you should only make one point at a time when presenting, just like you only write or draw with one pencil at a time. It’s a simple message, which I tend to repeat, and the image makes it easier to remember.


Design your presentation with your audience’s understanding in mind. Make it simple for them to know what your key messages are, to understand them, and to remember them. Do this by choosing up to three key messages, and repeating them; simplifying your visuals; and associating each message with an image.

Unlike bureaucracy, which we just have to live with, nobody has to listen to your presentation. They have many other things they can be doing instead, and unnecessary complexity will turn them off quickly. Make it simple for them, and they will be happy to listen – and grateful that you make their life easier.


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