Presentation for the thinking person.

I think we need a more engaging approach to public speaking than the standard we usually experience, which is based on persuasion techniques for 20th century audiences. Times, and expectations, have changed. Here is my 21st Century approach.

Think of the presentation in two parts: Discovery and Understanding. Respect your audience’s preference to discover meaning for themselves, and lead them to a shared conclusion by making it easy for them to understand you.

(Show me the value of listening to this presentation, now. Inspire me to listen. But don’t thrust information at me. Offer it to me in logical, easy pieces, and allow me a little time to figure out the logic for myself. I will respect you for this, just as you have shown respect for me by doing it.)


First, inspire the audience to want to discover what you are offering.

People learn much more when they discover something for themselves than when they have something thrust upon them. Observant parents know this; good teachers know it; successful presenters also know it and so create an environment in which the audience progressively learn for themselves the logical steps needed to reach the desired conclusion.

A successful presenter leads the audience to a shared conclusion by encouraging and enabling discovery.

To motivate and inspire your audience to discover, tell a compelling story; deliver a strong message expressing value to the audience; pose a mystery; create a good feeling and a hint of more; promise a revelation—there are several ways. My favourite is a good story that combines all the above, delivered with total presence.

Remember the target is short-term motivation. You want your audience to be engaged for long enough to seek and find your meaning and thus be moved to a longer-lasting motivation and action. Take it a step at a time.

And, be sure to give your audience time to discover—to think and reflect on each point that you make. Pause (insert silence—even in half-second pieces), and don’t hog all the airtime.


Now present your material in a way that is easy to understand, or transparent. Keep it simple, structure clearly, show the structure, and repeat the main points. Create compelling logic and put it out there in easy pieces for the audience to pick up.

(For the thinking person) test your material against four classic quality dimensions: make sure it is accessible, summarised, relevant and customised.

  • Accessible (concise language; simple statements; clear structure, preferably hierarchical)
  • Summarised (create a roadmap; highlight the main points, and repeat them; omit excessive detail)
  • Relevant (express the value to the listener)
  • Customised (tailor the information, the language and the organisation to the audience)

This will make it efficient and effective, and thus transparent, or easily understandable.

21st Century presentation

This approach to discovery is a considerable step up from the ‘presentation skills’ mindset of last century. Today’s business audience is better informed, more highly educated and more sceptical than that of even 20 years ago, and is confronted with a lot more competing claims (and PowerPoint presentations). And attention spans are shorter.

Today’s audiences want it all, now, with minimum effort. They will summarily filter out unsupported claims, or anything not immediately relevant; will ignore excessively detailed or unorganised information; and will seldom give a second chance to those who are not intellectually and emotionally engaging from the first moment. They will resist any attempt, however well meaning, to railroad them into agreement or compliance: they will do their own thinking and reach their own conclusion, regardless of what you say, so give them the motivation, the tools, and the time, to do that.


Rehearse a few times. If you have organised your presentation well using this approach, you may be surprised at how your nonverbal communication improves. Why? because your mind will be in the right place: focused on the audience and how you can lead them to discover meaning for themselves, not on yourself and what you want to say. You will find new confidence, especially when you’ve tried it a few times and it works. You will relax and become more physically expressive.

In case it is not obvious, the way you express yourself nonverbally is as important as the words that you use. The audience will be engaged and moved as much by your enthusiasm, empathy and authenticity as by your verbal meaning.

Of course everyone needs a bit of improvement somewhere, so get some feedback from colleagues, take a presentation skills training course—or join ToastMasters for some focused experience and quality feedback at a simple level. Do some video self-feedback (don’t use a mirror—that reinforces self-focus, which is Enemy No. 1 in communication).

A word on feedback: any fool can see what you are doing wrong. You don’t need to know too much of that, as that knowledge will eat at your presence and confidence. You need to know what to do right—a replacement behaviour for the disengaging stuff—and there are a few insightful people who can tell you. Find one. Look for a practitioner—a persuasive presenter who can also listen well and understand your unique style.

Put some effort into your voice. Learn to breathe and speak properly. Speak clearly and slow down a bit, especially if any of your audience do not share your native language. Your voice is the most powerful communication tool you have, and a good voice doesn’t just come naturally—it is trained. So do a bit of training. It’s not difficult to stand out, as few people bother about the sound of their own voice.

And insert plenty of silence! That’s the time you give to your audience to think for themselves—to discover—and is at the heart of presence.

Contact me for coaching on executive presentations, or to train your trainers in how presentations really work.