A creative consultant and storyteller, Ian Sanders is the author of four books on work and business. Talking about presentations recently to FT|IE Corporate Learning Alliance – a joint venture of the Financial Times and IE Business School, formed in 2015 in response to growing calls for more flexible, practical, relevant and timely corporate learning – Sanders believes that, “Since slide-making software hit desktops in the 1990s, executives have struggled against sleep-inducing presentations with their garish colours, misaligned text, illegible text pasted over images, and endless bullet points on a single slide.”


Thankfully, Sanders also believes that even the dullest corporate presentations can be transformed if executives follow five principles:


  1. Get your audience working with you. Peter Welch, director of the European Court of Auditors in Luxembourg, starts his presentations with a puzzle. He says, “When the audience sees the graphic, it grabs their attention. It’s a better opening than a slide entitled ‘budgetary frameworks and procurement decisions’ that might send everyone to sleep. If you get the timing right, the audience solves the puzzle just as you get there.” Involving the audience at the outset encourages them to anticipate more challenges later on.
  2. Don’t rely on the software. PowerPoint and Keynote may be easy to use, but their default settings won’t inspire an audience. See the slides’ layout or design from your audience’s perspective – not your own. So, keep text on each slide to a minimum. Don’t always use the default format of a heading and round bullet points. Build your presentation around powerful images, using abstract photographs to illustrate concepts. If you are imparting complex information, include it in a separate handout that the audience can digest later. Caroline Goyder, author of ‘Gravitas: Communicate with Confidence, Influence and Authority’, believes that the fewer the slides, the clearer the message. She says, “The cardinal sin is to think slides are your memory prompt. They are there to illuminate ideas for the audience. Keep them as simple as possible.”
  3. Take your audience on a journey. Nancy Duarte says that a presentation should take the audience on a journey by creating dramatic tension between the status quo and a new vision. In her book ‘Resonate’ Duarte examines former Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ presentation at the 2007 iPhone launch. Jobs built anticipation by asking his audience to think about three revolutionary products: the iPod, the phone and a breakthrough internet device. He asked them to imagine how things might be if these weren’t three separate products, but one. Then he revealed the new iPhone. Duarte writes: “Jobs ends his presentation having enthusiastically moved his audience from what it is to what could be.” That inspired a standing ovation.
  4. Respond to the situation. You don’t always present in isolation. When Tanya Boardman, co-founder of Catena Space, a UK technology and space-sector consultancy, was given just five minutes at the end of the second day of the UK Space Conference, she decided “to tell a lively story, with a touch of humour to wake people and take a step away from screens full of data”. It can be useful to know not only what your competition will say but also how they will present.
  5. Prepare thoroughly. This applies to any speech. Caroline Goyder, author of Gravitas, advises executives to start with a blank sheet of paper and coloured pens. She says, “Don’t plan on PowerPoint. Take the time to work out your angle on the information and find a compelling frame around it.” Once you have a structure, make time to rehearse. Practise at home, and/or ask a team member to watch you rehearse your presentation at the office.