How to Design Your Presentation as a Professional

Why Care about Good Presentation Design?
Structuring Your Presentation
Designing Your Slides
A Note about Company and Industry Culture and Expectations
A Note about Personal and Professional Branding

Whatever your role, as a professional, you need to communicate and present your ideas effectively in the workplace – whether it’s to internal customers or external customers. If you are a job seeker, a well-designed presentation can help you demonstrate skills that a recruiter or hiring manager seeks in their ideal job candidate. With more things being remote, it’s especially important to learn and integrate new and better ways of presenting ideas.

Now, we are going to share powerful practices for Presentation Design to help you stand out as a professional and communicate your message effectively.

Why Care about Good Presentation Design?

Well, if you’ve ever given a presentation and seen fidgeting, looks of boredom, confusion, or people checking their phones, you probably understand the most immediate reason why.

When you’re presenting to an audience, you have typically invested a lot of time, thought, and preparation in developing your presentation. You most likely care what you are talking about, and you want to achieve some sort of objective.

So, why leave things to chance?

  • Perhaps you’re educating your audience on a subject matter to increase their knowledge of that area.
  • Or you’re training employees on an important process they need to follow and execute.
  • Or maybe you’re meeting with a potential client, and you want to influence them to take some sort of action based on what you’re presenting.

Whatever the case, it’s critical to design a presentation that engages your audience, clearly articulates your key messages, and ultimately achieves your objective.

At the end of the day, this is all about communication and how to leverage this visual tool as effectively as possible to convey your message.

DON’T FORGET: It’s critical to design a presentation that engages your audience, clearly articulates your key messages, and ultimately achieves your objective.

So, let’s talk about presentation design.

Structuring Your Presentation

Where to begin?

Elizabeth, an account executive, had to present to a potential client. She was thrilled because her team had made it to the shortlist. Her company was one of three possible vendors, and she needed to persuade the potential client to select her firm as their partner. The stakes were high. She not only wanted to win the business for her organization, but she also had a personal and professional investment in this. She wanted to demonstrate her value as an employee and her success as a professional.

So, where should she begin when designing her presentation?

The first mistake most people make when starting on a presentation is that they begin with the slides. If this is how you have done things in the past, I want you to commit to yourself right now that this is the moment you stop, because there is a better way.

In the Harvard Business Review (HBR) Guide to Persuasive Presentations, Nancy Duarte, a leader in presentation design, shares her approach to the design process. In her seven-step process, it’s not until the fifth step that you actually start creating your slides. There is a lot of research and thought that goes into crafting your messaging before you even think about the slides.

Five Presentation Design Concepts for Optimal Effectiveness

Let’s consider some of the work you can do to structure your presentation.

1. Know your audience.

It sounds cliché, but it’s true.

  • Who are you speaking to?
  • Who are the decision-makers?
  • What are their hot buttons – in other words, what keeps them up at night?
  • How does your solution address their hot buttons?
  • If your presentation is educational, who in your audience knows the least? You need to reach them while not boring others who may have more advanced knowledge of the subject.

You can achieve this by presenting information about a topic and then soliciting feedback from the audience.

Ask them what their experience is. Ask them for examples they can share, or for additional points that could add value to the conversation.

This way, you keep the attention and engagement of your more knowledgeable audience members while providing those with less knowledge the information they need.

Address the "What’s in it for Me" (WIIFM) statement. You’ve researched your audience – why should they care about what you’re telling them in the presentation? Speak to the benefit they will get from listening to you.

2. What is your message?

This may seem straightforward at first, but it’s something you need to give serious thought to. What is the key message or messages you want your audience to walk away with?

They may only remember a few things. With that in mind, you must be clear on the key takeaway message, or they won’t be.

CONSIDER THIS: What is the key message you want your audience to walk away with?

Let’s go back to Elizabeth, our account executive who we talked about earlier. Based on her target audience and their hot buttons, one of her key messages was that her company’s solution solved their pain points – it had key differentiators that their competitors’ solutions did not that made her company stand out as the best partner.

A second key message was that the strengths, skills, and experience of her project team would ensure the project’s success. A third key message was that their two organizations’ cultures were aligned, so she was confident they could work well together in this new partnership.

So, now that you have identified your audience and your message, what comes next?

3. What is your purpose?

Another key concept to consider is, what is the purpose of my presentation?

  • Educate and Inform?
  • Influence and Persuade?
  • Report Progress?
  • Train on a Process?

Identifying the purpose is important because it can impact how you structure your overall presentation.

Educate and Inform – Take a step-by-step approach, adding building block upon building block of information until you reach the end of the presentation where they now have a higher level of knowledge than when they began.

Influence and Persuade – Consider using HBR’s approach, juxtaposing throughout the presentation what is with what could be to motivate them to take a specific action at the end of the presentation.

Report Progress – Recap, report, and next steps. Recap status from the previous meeting, then provide a report on current progress. Note any issues or risks and mitigation efforts. End with next steps, action owners, and the next report date.

Train on a Process – Start high level and then drill into the details. Provide process overview and purpose, followed by details of process steps with actions and expectations by role. End with questions and then commitment for buy-in to the process.

There is no hard and fast prescriptive formula to follow. Think about who your audience is, the key messages, the purpose, and what you want to achieve at the end of the presentation. Then, consider the structure that best supports those.

4. You’re telling a story.

Think of your presentation as a story you’re telling your audience. You know the key messages you want them to walk away with. As you map out the structure of your presentation, look for the best places to speak to the points you want to emphasize. You can emphasize them by leading up to them with points that provide context, through repetition, by using different colors, or by spending more time on these points.

Remember, your audience will only recall pieces of your presentation. You want to be clear on your key points, so they are not left to figure it out.

Sometimes, a good story has tension that is eventually resolved.

Remember Elizabeth?

She decided to create tension by speaking to her client’s hot buttons to give a feeling of discomfort and then followed with how her company’s solution alleviates the pain points and helps achieve the best outcomes (for example, reduced cost, increased efficiency). This provided her listeners with a moment of relief that they associated with her solution.

So, where appropriate, think about how to weave in alternating moments of tension and relief in the structure of your story.

REMEMBER: A good story has tension that is eventually resolved.

A great way to map out your presentation is to use sticky notes. These serve as visual representations of the concepts you will present in each slide.

You can easily move them around as you think through your presentation’s structure. You can also use different colored sticky notes for different points of emphasis or different sections of the presentation.

5. Provide your audience with a roadmap.

You’re taking your audience on a journey. So, you want to tell them where you’re going, and you want them to know where they are along the way. This way, they are in step with you as you go through each point of your presentation versus feeling lost or confused.

At the Beginning.

At the beginning of your presentation, provide an agenda telling them what you will talk about and the order in which you will present each topic.

Communicate expectations for the audience’s participation. For greater interaction and engagement, allow your audience to ask questions along the way. Tell them they can interject a question as they think of it.

If you’re presenting virtually and managing the presentation without any support, take a moment every now and then to stop and get a visual view of your audience to gauge interest – look for signs of boredom, confusion, or disengagement so you can bring them back into the conversation.

Ask if they have questions before you continue. You can also suggest that they feel free to unmute themselves to ask a question at any time since you may not be able to see them while you’re presenting.

If someone is helping with your virtual call, you may suggest that people enter questions in the chat box, have your support person check it periodically, and then interject to ask you if it’s a good time for questions. If it is, this person can read the questions to you. You can provide answers and field follow-up questions from the audience.

If you have only a specific amount of time for your presentation, you may want to take all questions at the end. In this case, tell your audience to please note their questions during the presentation as they think of them, and you will address them at the end. In this way, they will pay closer attention to you throughout the presentation.

The important point is that you clearly communicate expectations for your audience’s participation at the beginning, so everyone is on the same page.

Signposts along the Way.

A trick I learned from Pat Flynn’s How to Create an Awesome Slide Deck that I find helpful to keep my audience in step with me throughout the presentation is to use dots at the top of the slides to note which point I am on.

For example, if I’m doing a presentation on presentation design, and I share five best practices, the slide will look something like the following, so they know which point I am speaking to and how many slides there are to go for that section. I find people appreciate this visual signpost. I like it because it helps my audience stay present.

Designing Your Slides

So, you have done your prep work and mapped out the presentation’s structure. Now, what I think of as the fun part begins. It’s time to design your slides.

First, a note about why slide design is important. I learned this at a workshop conducted by Bruce Farrell, a consultant with Plante Moran, and it has stayed with me ever since. It has significantly influenced how I create my slides. I want to share it with you because I think it provides a unique and valuable perspective.

Bruce shared that slide design is important because when it’s done well, it shows we put thought and care into our presentation.

The unspoken message you send to your audience with a well-designed presentation is: “I care enough about you to take the time to do this right.”

DON’T FORGET: Slide design is important because when it’s done well, it shows we put thought and care into our presentation.

People intuit or sense when something is well designed even if they don’t know the mechanics of what makes it well designed. On the flip side, people also sense when something is not well designed, even if they don’t know why.

Five Slide Design Tips for Effective Communication

The following five concepts will help you design slides, so you send the right message to your audience. These will help you clearly communicate your key points, keep your audience engaged and interested, and, ultimately, let them know that you really do care about them.

1. Keep it simple.

Good slide design is not only about what to keep on a slide, but what to remove. If something isn’t central to your point, take it out – it shouldn’t be there in the first place.

This means no clutter and avoid a lot of text. If there is a lot going on in the slide – a lot of visuals and/or a lot of text, your audience won’t know where to look to get the information they need. This leads to confusion and frustration, which is exactly what you want to avoid.

Don’t feel you need to include all of the information on the slide that you want to relay. Include only what is central to your message, and then speak to the rest. People can’t decipher a slide with a lot of visuals and text and listen to you at the same time, so keep it simple and keep the focus on you. They are there to hear what you have to say, not read slides.

2. One idea = one slide.

You want to limit each slide to one idea only. It can be confusing when you put too many ideas on one slide.

Remember – you want to be clear about the key message your audience walks away with, so don’t leave it to them to figure it out. Be clear for yourself about your message for each slide and include text and a visual to communicate that single message. Having only one idea per slide will also help you, as a presenter, stay focused and on topic.

Use sticky notes to capture your one idea for each slide. If your message can’t fit on a sticky note, it can’t fit on a slide.

3. Capture at a glance.

People should be able to glance at your slide – the content and the visual – and comprehend the message. Your audience will typically read the title and then scan the rest of the slide.

There have been numerous experiments showing people are more likely to remember pictures and images versus words. So, use a visual with some text, rather than a lot of words that people will have to read through. Again, you want your audience to focus on you and what you’re saying, not the slides.

People are more likely to remember pictures and images versus words.

I bet you’re thinking that sounds easy, but it’s actually challenging to do. For example, what if you need to show year-end sales results by team with supporting details?

In this example, let’s say there are three sales teams. You could show each team and their respective year-end sales total. You could then speak to the detailed information and provide it in a leave-behind piece, if necessary.

This way, the audience glances at the slide, captures the key sales totals by team, and then looks at you and listens to your message about the sales totals. This is preferable to having a lot of detailed data points in the slide that the audience spends time trying to digest while you’re talking, and then they miss hearing your key points.

4. Pay attention to the details.

Details include things like font type and color, and slide colors and styles. Not paying attention to details can look like this:

When one of Elizabeth’s competitors was preparing their slides, they accidentally moved the header title box on one of the slides, which moved the text within it. Perhaps they did not notice, or maybe they did not think it was a problem.

But guess what?

During the presentation, when they advanced the slides, the client noticed the header title shifting from one place on one slide to another place on the following slide, almost appearing to “jump,” because the text wasn’t aligned with the text on the preceding and following slides.

Perhaps it only took their attention away from the presenter for a few seconds, but for those few seconds, their minds were reacting to the slides “jumping” rather than paying attention to the presenter. The client was also just slightly unsettled by the fact that this potential vendor did not catch this error. What other errors might they miss?

As we discussed earlier, people notice when something is well designed and on the flip side, when it is not, even if they don’t know the reasons why. Understanding this concept has had a significant impact on the attention to detail I place when reviewing my slides before finalizing them.

When you don’t pay attention to the details, it can distract your audience from listening to you and your message. Just as importantly, it can come across as carelessness, which is not the impression you want to leave.

5. Hold the cheese, please.

Lastly, you want to avoid anything that might appear cheesy, such as animation or clip art. These things can be used well, but it’s better to use a good photo and supporting text.

Remember, you want to convey professionalism, and clip art does not help showcase you as a professional. Also, your focus is on effectively communicating your message and ensuring your audience leaves with the intended take-aways. Cheesiness only distracts them.

It’s like dangling a shiny metal object in front of a bird – they quickly shift their attention to look at the shiny object, instead of paying attention to you. It adds no value whatsoever, so don’t use it.

One place where animation can be used well is at the beginning of a presentation when you’re walking your audience through the agenda. Use the simple animation feature which has each agenda item “appear” rather than the more complex and distracting animation features, such as having text “fly-in” or “float in.”

You are a professional, and you deserve the attention and focus of your audience – avoid things that will distract from this.

A Note about Company and Industry Culture and Expectations

Every industry, company culture, and organization’s expectations for the look and level of detail for visual presentations is different. You may need to adjust the practices shared in this article to your industry standard or company culture. I suggest the possibility of sharing these design practices with your organization if you think there is room for improvement.

Change may come slowly, but you can plant the seed and help your company move towards more effective practices for presentation design. And, if you are in the right company culture that values this kind of feedback, doing this can help you market yourself as someone who takes the initiative to drive improvements and is committed to quality.

A Note about Personal and Professional Branding

Now that we’ve discussed presentation and slide design, let’s look at another angle of why creating well-designed presentations may be important to you.

Taking Stock of Your Skills

As a professional, you must continually take stock of your skills and clearly articulate them and your value to your employer, your network, and the marketplace. As you can see, there are many skills that are demonstrated in a well-designed presentation.

  • Planning and Organizing: As you have seen, you should map out or storyboard your thoughts, content, and structure, which requires planning and organizing.
  • Communication: Giving presentations can demonstrate your ability to effectively communicate using a visual medium, as well as verbally with the messaging you craft and articulate.
  • Public Speaking: Whether you present virtually or in person, you are presenting to an audience. In-person presentations can be a bit more nerve-wracking for those less accustomed to public speaking, but speaking virtually also requires public speaking skills.
  • Research: You must research your audience, as well as data and evidence you use in your presentation; perhaps you also need to do further research on the subject matter.
  • Writing: While your slides are largely visual, you must write out your thoughts and key messages so you can clearly communicate them.
  • Facilitation: You will use facilitation techniques to keep your audience engaged and interested and to make sure you answer their questions sufficiently.
  • Training: If the purpose of your presentation is to train people – on skills, a process, an approach – then you are demonstrating training skills.
  • Soft skills include:
    • creativity
    • attention to detail
    • customer focus
    • influencing or persuading

Take a moment to read through these to see which ones you possess and have demonstrated through presentations you have given.

Hopefully, you recognize skills that make you stand out as a professional. Also, think about skills related to a well-designed presentation that may not be on this list and note these, as well.

Then, go to your LinkedIn profile page and add these skills if they are not already there. Perhaps create a STAR story about a successful presentation you designed and delivered, the results it achieved, and the skills it demonstrated.

If you are in a career transition, think about your target job role and the possible demands for presentation design skills that you may need to speak to in your resume or in an interview.

Let’s look at an example of how one of these skills can be demonstrated.

Mary, an executive assistant, needed to be familiar with current productivity tools. She decided to do a presentation on these to help her learn the subject matter and present herself as someone who can quickly learn new technologies and is committed to continual learning.

So, she conducted online research and downloaded the applications to experiment with them to gain firsthand knowledge. She then designed a presentation speaking to the top five productivity tools in the marketplace, their uses, strengths, and limitations. Research was a significant skill she demonstrated by creating a presentation.

Speaking to Your Presentation Skills during a Job Interview

Sometimes, in a job interview, you may be asked to speak about your greatest weakness. The best way to do this is to think of an area where you needed to make an improvement, and you did just that.

  • What steps did you take?
  • What was the result?

What did Mary do when she designed a presentation on productivity tools?

  1. Identified an area of improvement she knew was important for her target job role.
  2. Decided to create a presentation as a means to learn about the tools and then showcase her knowledge of them.
  3. Conducted online research to identify the top tools in the marketplace.
  4. Downloaded apps and began using them to gain firsthand knowledge of how they worked.
  5. Documented her learnings from her research and direct experience.
  6. Put these together in a presentation, which she shared with people in her network.
  7. Posted her presentation on her LinkedIn profile page to help market herself.

When asked in a job interview what her greatest weakness was, she was ready with an excellent answer.

She replied: “Previously, I didn’t have much experience with productivity tools, which I know are now integral to this role. So, I took it upon myself to conduct research to learn about the top tools currently used in the marketplace. I downloaded five of the apps and used them in the same way I would use them as an executive assistant.

I then took it one step further because I believe if you want to know whether you really know something, you should teach it to others. So, I put my learnings together in a presentation and shared it with people in my network. While I still have more to learn, I am confident I can hit the ground running with the productivity tool your company uses, and I can quickly learn whatever I need to in order to become an expert.”

The hiring manager was impressed. She liked that Mary showed initiative, a commitment to learning, and a willingness to roll up her sleeves and do the work even if it’s something that’s not comfortable at first. These were all positive traits important to the hiring manager and the company.

Creating an Accomplishment Story by Designing and Giving a Presentation

Are designing and giving presentations an area of improvement for you?

If so, you have a great opportunity to incorporate the presentation design practices discussed here to design and give a presentation on a topic that is a core competency for you and will, therefore, be easier for you to put together.

  • Share your presentation with people in your network. It’s okay to start small.
  • Incorporate feedback from your network to make improvements, and then share your presentation with a professional organization you are affiliated with.
  • Then, post your presentation on LinkedIn. This will help provide evidence of your skills as a professional and will help showcase you as an expert in your field or role.

This will also allow you to proactively create a positive story for that typically dreaded interview question: “What is your greatest weakness?”

Good luck to you with your future presentations! Although now that you have these 10 powerful presentation design practices, you won’t need any luck.

About the Author: Marla Fishman has over 13 years of proposal and project management experience. She helps companies meet tight deadlines and ensure compliance with requirements by building strong relationships with cross-functional team members and collaborating with them to achieve quality, accuracy, and completeness. Marla has nonprofit and corporate experience and Lean Agile certifications. She serves as Assistant Director of the Professional Service Group of Central New Jersey (PSGCNJ) Training Committee. She is passionate about collaborating with others to achieve a common goal.

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