A presentation that engages

Six leaders explain how they get their message across in the conference room

Pooja Singh
Updated24 Jul 2017
Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s presentation at the annual developer conference in May in the US was all about simple, clutter-free slides. Photo: AFP
Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s presentation at the annual developer conference in May in the US was all about simple, clutter-free slides. Photo: AFP

Stories, Google’s chief executive officer Sundar Pichai says, are best told with pictures. During the company’s annual developer conference in San Francisco in May, the Indian-American presented clutter-free slides, dissecting Big Data in pictures and simple words. His first slide, for instance, had only the logos for Google’s primary products—Gmail, Android, Chrome, Maps, Search, YouTube and the Google Play Store—along with the text “1 Billion+ Users”. His message: Each of the seven products has over a billion monthly-users. 

Office presentations can be boring, especially when they are crammed with words. It is actually more difficult to process information if it comes simultaneously in both verbal and written forms, according to a study published in 2013 in the International Journal Of Engineering Education. Visuals tend to have a greater impact, it says.

We asked six leaders across sectors to tell us how they create their presentations and what, according to them, is an ideal presentation. 

Less is more

Chaayos’ co-founder Raghav Verma likes to limit his presentations to 10 slides. “I prefer more images and video content. For example, when addressing our café leads (managers), cricket and Bollywood examples resonate best when delivering even a sales or growth aspect,” says the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, alumnus who co-founded the start-up, which offers customized tea, with fellow IITian Nitin Saluja in 2012.

US-based slide design guru Nancy Duarte says each slide should pass the glance test: People should be able to understand it in 3 seconds. If they cannot, then the slide is too complex, she says.

Agrees Anil Kothuri, CEO at Edelweiss Retail Finance Ltd: “The presentation should be as concise as possible, definitely not more than 10 slides. Mine normally has a few tables or visual aids to help reinforce what I want to say.”

Udit Sheth, founder and managing director of SE TransStadia, a sports infrastructure firm, keeps his brief to 10 minutes.

Sunanda K. Malik, the global talent marketing and communication leader at professional services firm Genpact, too believes “less is more. In today’s instant gratification-obsessed world, if you don’t make your point quickly, you’ve lost your audience. And the presentation needs to be interactive; the feedback will show how you’ve performed.” That is also the case with Vighnesh Shahane, the CEO and whole-time director of IDBI Federal Life Insurance, who likes to keep his presentations “to the minimum”, and Santhosh Babu, founder-chair of Organization Development Alternatives, who “tries to get the audience glued to me, which facilitates the exchange of dialogue, even ideas, with the audience. Their participation indicates how your presentation was. If one is not a great speaker and cannot remember data, then it is always useful to have more slides and text.” 

Technology matters

To create an engaging presentation with a “wow factor”, one needs to look beyond PowerPoint, especially if the plan is to illustrate ideas with flair. Verma prefers Prezi for its animated, non-linear presentations. “iMovie works great for video content,” says Verma, though he, like Sheth, still has a soft corner for PowerPoint. Malik banks on SlideShare: “It has a bunch of great presentations to browse through if you’re facing a creative block and are seeking inspiration.”

Shahane has no specific go-to app or tool. “Technology is only a facilitator. I may use anything, whether it be slides, images or videos or any other technological advancement; it has to do just one thing, help me get across a powerful story,” he says. Babu, on the other hand, likes to keep things simple: “If I use visuals, I would like to use the photographs I have taken.” Kothuri uses text, tables, graphs and, sometimes, a link to YouTube.

Following guidelines

The people we spoke to talked about a set of specific guidelines they follow to ensure their message is being heard across the board or meeting room.

Babu says what is important is the overall storyline. “Think about the presentation as a story that can grip your audience. What is the beginning? How do you create curiosity? How do you engage your audience, interact with them and exchange ideas? What kind of questions do you ask? How do you add a slice of humour? What is the end like? Once the storyline is clear, then you could think what format will best fit the story,” he says.

TED Talks author Chris Anderson made a similar point in his 2013 article in the Harvard Business Review. “We all know that humans are wired to listen to stories, and metaphors abound for the narrative structures that work best to engage people. When I think about compelling presentations, I think about taking an audience on a journey. A successful talk is a little miracle—people see the world differently afterward,” he wrote.

Verma too believes in the power of storytelling. “Keeping the audience in mind is essential—humour/drama in between acts as a great hook to keep people actively involved.” Malik’s advice: “Avoid clichés (unless you’re making fun of them), be confident while talking, don’t stuff everything that comes to your mind on a slide, and humour is best when least expected (never be predictable and start with those standard Dilbert joke slides!).” 

Sheth has a set rule: “Never write what you are going to speak. Let the PowerPoint give sublime messages while one is presenting.”

For Shahane, starting strong is most important. “You need to grab your audience’s attention and hold it. Another important guideline I follow is to vary the speed at which I talk and make changes in pitch and tone to avoid making it sound monotonous. I believe body language is crucial in getting your message across. Confident and positive body language is an integral element of a powerful presentation,” he says.

Kothuri says a presentation should be used to emphasize the salient points one wants to communicate. “Each slide should be visually appealing; the font size and style should be uniform. I believe there should be only four lines on a slide, as it helps people focus and understand what I am trying to convey,” he says.

Getting help

Creating a blockbuster presentation needs large doses of brainstorming and creativity. How do leaders manage this along with everyday work?

Verma’s presentations are made in-house. “Good graphics obviously make presentations engaging, so we actively use our in-house design team to give the right imagery to the brand,” he says. Sheth normally provides the content and asks one of his colleagues to execute it. Malik believes that if you’re making the presentation yourself, you should create the presentation, otherwise you won’t come across as authentic. “But yes, it’s always nice to get creative folks to add some magic,” she admits. Babu spends more of his time in creating the storyline and adding content to the slides. “For formatting, cleaning it up and beautifying, I usually send the slide deck to my colleague,” he says.

Shahane involves his teams, because “that helps strengthen the content with an all-round perspective on the subject”. Kothuri typically has someone (generally the head of strategy) put together the data and the first draft of the presentation. “The final edit is always mine,” he insists.

The final word

The common thread, then: less text, more visuals, an engaging storyline, keeping it interactive, and ensuring the right body language. Kothuri sums it up best: “We are living in an over-communicated society. The corporate environment has numbed our ability to process new information. We need to cut through the clutter.” 

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