The Secret Bone Structure to All Great Presentations

What do the the  HSBC Hong Kong Building, Angelina Jolie and your next presentation all have in common? No, this is not some bad joke involving Brad Pitt. The answer (hopefully for your presentation) is great bone structure. I’ve never seen any great communication, from art and architecture to speeches and stories that didn’t have great bones. By bones, I simply mean that the creator has worked hard at what’s underneath to make what you see on the surface come to life. This certainly applies to movies/ books/ design and architecture. In fact, I would guess that it applies to any creative endeavor. It definitely applies to presentations. So what are these bones? Every good presentation has 3 essential parts: A Hook. The Meat. And the Payoff.

Part 1. The Hook.

A Hook puts the audience on the edge of their seats and gives them a sense of what’s coming. At worst it’s an agenda slide. At best, it’s a provocative question, or a an on-point story, or some way of engaging the audience in the content that is to follow. It’s vital you get it right. Remember, this is the moment to get people leaning forward in their seats.  Sitting up and paying attention.  This is the one moment you have to grab them. In your story it’s your version of “Once upon a time.” A good Hook is intriguing.  “We have a dusty brand.”  It’s provocative.  “We are a difficult company to do business with.”  It’s relevant.  “$42 million.  That is the size of the market opportunity ahead of us.”  Let’s break these down a little more.  There are two operative words in these statements that are important.  They place the audience directly in the action.  We and us. Now I could have gone with, Our company (factually correct, but much less personal), or ABC corporation (again factually correct, but distant).  You are presenting to people.  Make it personal.

Part 2. The Meat.

The Meat is the bulk of your presentation. But don’t just carve it thoughtlessly into chunks and throw it out there for your audience to chew on. Think carefully about how you will present it. How you frame the meat will make or break your presentation. Your audience needs two things:  First, a path that they can easily follow.  Nothing complicated.  You don’t want structure to get in the way of story.   Second, they need a context.  The answer to the eternal audience questions — where am I? and how long is this going to take? You can creatively frame the meat. As long as the path and context are clear to your audience. But here are a few standbys (from easy to a little more complex) that work well.

1. The List.

Lists are a great way to organize.  From your visit to the local supermarket to Letterman’s top ten.  We find them useful – a shorthand to organize life.  We’re drawn to them.  Magazine publishers know this.  Take a look at any newsstand.  From Golf Digest to Fast Company, to Vogue, we see advice and how to in the form of lists.  “10 Ways to Cure Your Slice.”  “15 Most Innovative Companies.”  “5 Makeovers to Cure the Winter Blues.”  And when publishers place a list prominently on their cover, sales go up.  They work in presentations.  The list serves an organization (these are the most important points, pay attention to them) – and context (where am I in this presentation and how much longer to go?) – function.

2. Timeline.

Only Benjamin Button and Merlin age backwards, so for the rest of us, following a sequence of events laid out in time is easy. It’s a little more complicated than Lewis Caroll’s advice, “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop.” but not much. What you did, What’s going on now, What you plan to do in the future is a great 3-part structure that gives history and context (what you did), current reality (what’s going on now) and a view into tomorrow (what you plan to do in the future).

3. An Organizing Diagram.

This is a simple picture that shows the structure of your presentation.  You can use these in a couple of ways. First, to literally show the building blocks of your presentation, and your path through it, like a map. Second, as a diagram around which you build the central thesis of your argument, and keep referring back to. David Womack does this in a presentation he gave at SXSW, Does Your Product Have a Plot.

You can see on slide 5 how he shows a chart of tension and time and keeps referring back to it.

Part 3. The Payoff.

This is the final act of your presentation. It’s where you deliver on what’s in it for them, summarize and ask the ask. If you set out following Rule #1 , you know what you want to achieve. and in setting the hook and framing the meat, you have delivered on two simple questions: What do I want to get across? What do they (the audience) want? The Payoff is the combination of summary, and then most critical ask the ask. You have a purpose in mind for this presentation: make a sale,  get input to a plan. Whatever it is, now’s the time to close the deal. Ending with the damp squid of, “any questions” doesn’t cut it here. Now you ask for the order. Now you ask of your audience what you want them to do.


Gavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

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