How to Structure a Presentation
Choosing the Best Format for Your Audience
Have you ever sat through a rambling, disorganized presentation? If so, you probably found it hard to follow what the speaker was saying.
When presentations don't flow well, it's easy for audiences to get lost. This is why it's important to think carefully about the structure and organization of your presentation.
In this article, we'll explore some common structures that you can use next time you speak in front of other people.
The Importance of Structure
Without a defined structure, your audience may not be able to follow your presentation. When this happens, your opportunity is lost, the communication fails, and your reputation takes a hit. For example, if your aim is to persuade people, you'll want to use a different approach from the one you'd use if you wanted to demonstrate how a product works.
Many factors can influence your choice of structure, but the most important consideration is your presentation's purpose or goal. You need to identify what you want to achieve – do you want to inspire, motivate, inform, persuade, or entertain people?
Your audience's needs also affect the structure you choose. For example, those who are new to your topic need more background information than people with more expertise and experience. So, in this case, you'd want to choose an approach that gives you ample time to explain the context of your subject, as well as to reinforce your main points.
Structures to Consider
Below, we outline several structures that you can use to organize your presentation.
1. Open – Body – Conclusion
The Open – Body – Conclusion approach is one of the most practical structures you can use for presentations. (Click here to download a worksheet that helps you use it.)
People often call it the "tell 'em" approach, because you:
- Tell audience members what you're going to tell them (introduction).
- Tell them (body).
- Tell them what you told them (conclusion).
This structure is simple, effective and easy to remember. Its repetitive nature allows you to reinforce your points, which helps others remember them. It is also flexible: you can adjust the introduction and body to persuade, motivate, educate, or entertain them.
One downside, however, is that repetition can quickly bore people. The approach is also "old hat" to many, which can cause them to lose interest. If you choose to use it, balance repetition with plenty of interesting facts, images, anecdotes, or stories to hold your audience's interest.
Let's look at each stage of the Open – Body – Conclusion structure in detail and discuss the elements that you need to include in each. We'll start with the body, rather than the introduction, because the rest of your presentation will be based on that.
The body of your presentation needs to contain your key points. You should present these in a logical order, so that your audience can follow them easily.
Keep in mind that the body should comprise a limited number of ideas: the more you try to include, the fewer people will remember. A good guide is to cover three to five main points, but no more.
When organizing your ideas, use the chunking principle to put the information into specific units. This will make the concepts easier to grasp, and help people remember what you have told them.
Make sure that you back up your main points with facts. Use good information-gathering strategies in your research, and consider citing the sources that you use. To add credibility to your presentation, consider using the following information to support your ideas:
- Data, facts or statistics.
- Images or diagrams.
- Stories and examples.
- Quotes or testimonials from experts or industry leaders.
Your opening, or introduction, has two main purposes: to grab your audience's attention, and to cover the key points that you intend to talk about.
Instead of telling people what you plan to say, you can use a different approach and explain why they are there. What will they learn from your presentation, and how will the content benefit them?
It's also important to get their attention right from the beginning. You can do this in several ways:
- Use humor.
- Tell a story.
- Ask a rhetorical question.
- Play a short video.
- Make a strong or unexpected statement.
- Challenge your audience.
- Use a quotation or example.
- Appeal to people's self-interest.
- Request a specific action.
- Use suspense.
If you plan to answer questions at the end of your presentation, it's a good idea to mention this in the introduction, so people don't interrupt you mid-flow.
Many presenters overlook the importance of a conclusion – but the statements you finish with are what many audience members will remember best.
With the "tell 'em" approach, your conclusion summarizes the main points in the body of your presentation. If you want people to take action, be specific about what you want them to do.
Think carefully about how you want them to feel once you've finished; your conclusion is a great opportunity to reinforce this. Why not inspire them with a great story, a quote or a compelling call to action?
2. The Sandwich Approach
The Sandwich Approach is a variation of the Open – Body – Conclusion structure. This three-part structure covers:
- Advantages and/or benefits of your message or idea.
- Risks and concerns.
- How the benefits manage or eliminate those risks.
This approach is effective when you want to persuade audience members, or change their minds.
Having evidence to support your position is critical. However, factual data and reams of spreadsheets and charts are not highly persuasive. What people respond to is "vivid" evidence that brings your concept or argument to life.
To brush up on your persuasion skills, look at The Rhetorical Triangle. This tool asks you to consider your communication from three perspectives: those of the writer, the audience and the context. It's a method that builds credibility, and helps you ensure that your arguments are logical.
3. Monroe's Motivated Sequence
Monroe's Motivated Sequence is another good structure to use when you need to motivate or persuade. This sequence consists of five key steps:
- Getting your audience's attention – Use an interesting 'hook' or opening point, such as a shocking statistic. Be provocative and stimulating, not boring and unemotional.
- Creating a need – Convince the audience there's a problem, explain how it affects them. Persuade them that things need to change.
- Defining your solution – Explain what you think needs to be done.
- Describing a detailed picture of success (or failure) – Give people a vision; something they can see, hear, taste, and touch.
- Asking the audience to do something straight away – Get them involved right from the start. If you do this, it's then much easier to keep them engaged and active in your cause.
See our article on Cialdini's Six Principles of Influence to discover a range of tactics that you can use to increase the persuasiveness of your message.
4. Demonstration Structure
Use a simple demonstration structure when you are unveiling a new product or service.
Start by explaining why the product or service is so good. What makes it special? What problem will it solve for people?
Next, demonstrate what it does. How you do this will depend on your product but, whatever you do, make sure it works! Bring any important points to the audience's attention and provide helpful tips, where appropriate. Show them the results, and finish by giving them useful information, a good understanding of your topic, and something to remember.
Don't get too wrapped up in the detail; remember to keep it simple. Your presentation will be more powerful and your audience will remember more if you highlight just a few of the most important features. This will whet their appetite, and leave them wanting to know more.
5. Opportunity, Benefits, Numbers Structure
The Opportunity, Benefits, Number (OBN) structure is useful when you face busy people who want to hear what you have to say in the shortest time possible.
To use this structure, give audience members a quick summary of the opportunity that they need to consider, and outline the benefits that they can expect. Then, show them the numbers that back up your claims.
For example, imagine you are explaining why your company should implement a new performance management system. First, you might give some background on the proposal – for example, you want to drive a high-performance culture. Then, you could explain the benefits, such as improving organizational performance and profits. Finally, you could compare the cost of bringing the system in with the predicted return on investment, based on a similar system at another organization.
Presentations that lack a clear flow are confusing and ineffective. This is why it's important to pay careful attention when choosing the most appropriate structure.
Different structures fulfill different purposes. Before you begin, think about why you are giving your presentation. Do you want to inform, persuade, inspire, or entertain your audience?
The most common structure for presentations is Open – Body – Conclusion. This is often effective because it gives you the opportunity to repeat your key points a number of times. However, other structures can be more appropriate, depending on the circumstances, such as when you're trying to persuade an audience, demonstrate a product, or provide information in the most time-efficient way.