Stop presenting. Start a dialogue.

Mastering the art of impactful presentations.

We’ve all been in board rooms & bored-rooms :) The difference — one’s that have left us with long lasting impact and those that have left us zoned out in the first few minutes. In the last 17 odd years, I’ve happened to experience both in equal capacity and have studied and analysed the reason behind the success and failure at delivering a simple presentation effectively.

A mentor once told me — “It’s not the language that matters, it’s what and how you communicate”. And over the years I’ve come to believe that. I also believe that presentations can be made absolutely delightful, even if it's an absolute boring subject. That’s an art — an art that I have practiced over the years and grown to love it. I know there are still so many aspects that I’m still to learn and conquer, but as I always say, there’s no end to learning!

What I’m sharing today is not specific to any profession or subject. Whether design, marketing, engineering or even education, presentations can be made to look scrumptious. Yes, scrumptious! And there are so many ways to do so.

So let’s begin, shall we?

Know the subject by heart. And by soul.
And I mean it. There’s a difference between the two. The first, you may know the subject by heart because it is a part & parcel of what you do on a daily basic — study or work.
A designer will know every bit of the subject, but it needs a lot more than just that. It needs love. It needs to be close to the heart. I agree, not every subject can be treated with equal love or passion — but there’s no harm in loving the effort that you made to understand and present the subject. It shows when you present that you really care!

Try scheduling presentations first thing in the morning.
This may or many not be in your control, but if it is, try and push for a fresh morning slot. I’m sure everyone knows the reason. The mind is usually the sharpest at that time of the day. You are fresh, the audience is fresh and they will hopefully be all ears. As the day goes by, you lose control over what the audience may have gone through in the day and their mood & mindset when you’re all set to present.

Breaking the ice. Infusing humour whenever & wherever possible.
I’ve tried this myself a couple of times, usually when my team was invited to present something during the “snooze hours” when you’ve just had a hearty lunch or had a heavy morning workload. One needs to be mindful of the occasion, the audience before breaking in. I’ve usually started off with the most simple questions like how wonderful or terrible the weather’s been, to leading them to believe we are here with some exciting work (of course be confident that it actually is). I’ve also broken down awkward silences with quirky examples or a pinch of humour to keep the vibe positive through the presentation. It has helped lighten the mood, strike up interesting conversations & also worked in favour of the ideas being presented.

Play with the tool of storytelling.
Perhaps the most important aspect of presentation that I have come across and learnt and really love — storytelling! That doesn’t mean I narrate fairy tales or stories of my life :) It’s about building the context to your subject. It’s about building curiosity — a ‘curtain raiser’ of sorts. I remember a couple of instances which I’d like to share in brief.

The presentation was for a luggage company that needed re-branding. I was pulled into the project at the last moment as the client hadn’t warmed up to ideas that were presented before. I had to get it right. I had to make the client not just buy the idea — but fall in love with it. I began the presentation with an empty slide! And narrated the story of how I arrived at the idea or the eureka moment — the next part of the presentation was a breeze. It was a huge risk — one that could make or break the deal. But the clients gasped in awe at every slide thereafter. The idea went through and was executed after all.

Another instance and another form of storytelling — this was for an important design pitch with a breakfast cereal company. The presentation went well. It was at the end of the presentation when the client posed and unexpected question right at me. I did not see that coming. This was in the early days of my design career, when I didn’t really have that edge. He asked me why I wished to work on the project. A momentary silence and then I gave him an answer that he just couldn’t stop smiling at. I expressed how I’d love to see the pack sitting on my breakfast table every morning and how it would be an integral part of my life. And actually it is. It's a part of my breakfast routine even today.

Appeal to as many senses as possible.
A presentation is not just about PPT slides of text or numbers or facts and figures. And even if it is, there is no rule in the world that says it can’t be made visually beautiful. I’ve had presentations where we’ve hung up our designs covered with sheets on boards supported on railings and revealed every part of it as we went, making it seem like a physical PPT!

A picture is worth a thousand words. I’ve seen presentations that have used the best possible imagery to explain the most complex subjects. Images that are visually stunning. I personally invest a lot of time looking for images that would elevate the level of my presentation. Images with watermarks are a mood-killer. You’ve lost me immediately! Use of visual aids or infographics as actual references can make a presentation far more interesting.

I may be bragging here but I personally love and have somehow mastered the art of creating mood boards. I’ve experienced design presentations extending 100 slides with 90 slides containing nothing but faff! And the designs didn’t even match up to that level! I, on the other had, believe in keeping it simple. An effective mood-board that sets the context, builds intrigue and keeps the interest alive and trust me the next slide with the design just speaks for itself!

I’ve designed mood-boards with interesting audio…a collage of images with a suitable audio piece not only sets the context but transports the audience to the world that you intend to take them to. For instance, a collage of images from Paris with an audio like ‘la vie en rose’ — transports you to a world of romance, luxury, beauty and class! Stores use a mix of images, sound, fragrance and textures to attract their audience. That’s also the art of presentation in a way! So it’s important that one appeals to the senses to create a long-lasting impact

Leave something to the imagination — creating long-lasting impact
Last but not the least, leaving a bit to the imagination of the audience is often an interesting way to end a presentation. I’ve used all the above tools such as storytelling, a mood-board, an audio piece or simple a quote as a summation technique to lead the audience into an imaginative or inquisitive frame of mind — and it’s quite often led to interesting conversations after the presentation sessions. People ask, form opinions and even give me feedback on what they thought about the subject and the presentation. Truly satisfying and totally worth the while!

So stop presenting. Start a dialogue. Have a conversation. Make a connection and leave an impact — that’s long lasting!

Hope you enjoyed reading this piece and trust some of this will actually make sense if you decide to ever apply it in your day to day presentations!

Happy Reading!
Siddharth

A graphic designer by profession and by choice, a sketcher and painter and writer by hobby. Things that keep my grey cells running and my mind at peace.