How answering two questions will make your next presentation better

Posted on: September 24, 2014 | By: Michael Vaughn | Filed under: Tech Tips
bad color scheme example

Remember: Color and Type are important, but they’re not the only elements of design.

According to the National Institute of Health, about 3 in 4 Americans are afraid of public speaking. I’m that 1 in 4 who loves it. I love presenting! Even as an introvert, the thrill of being on stage and giving a great presentation is rarely matched by anything else.

It’s taken years to refine my presentations skills and techniques, which I’m now attempting to distill out into a series of blog posts and iBook. This is the first post in that series, and it starts at the very beginning (a very good place to start). 

Now I’m often approached with questions after a workshop or presentation. People ask things like:

“What font was that?”
“Where did you find that color scheme?”
“Which template did you use?”

These questions mirror my consultations with faculty and staff. They’re borne from an established misconception about design, namely that the “right” typeface or colors are all that’s needed to make a great presentation. Please don’t misunderstand: Typeface and color are important. No one wants to see a slide deck full of neon green bullet points in Comic Sans (or Arial, or Times New Roman, or Papyrus). But these are secondary elements of presentation design. 

Let’s pretend you just won the lottery. Millions of dollars are now yours, and the first thing you’re spending your hard-won cash on is building a new house. Do you start by picking out the decorations for the guest bedroom, or buying pillows for the living room couch? Or do you start by working with an architect to design the foundation and structure of your house?

Hopefully you see where this is going.

It’s possible to make a terrible presentation that looks good. The difference between a terrible presentation and a good one always starts with the design of the content. Do the points flow or is it a meandering mess? What storytelling techniques does the presenter employ? Is the content focused on the audience? What methods are used to effectively regain and refocus the audience’s attention every ten minutes or so? These are the areas you need to focus when you’re designing a presentation. Not with the visuals, and not with a computer. We’ll talk about the process for doing that in the coming weeks and months.

The challenge of overcoming this habit of starting your presentations in PowerPoint is addressed by Garr Reynolds in his book Presentation Zen. According to Garr, the two most important questions to answer before designing any presentation are:

What is my point?
Why does it matter?

These questions are central to any presentation, whether you’re using slides or not, and must be answered before you start. They’re the thesis statement of your talk. Starting to plan without knowing why you’re talking and why your audience should care will only lead to a terrible presentation. This doesn’t mean your answers won’t evolve along the way if you realize something you’re sharing doesn’t matter to your audience. That’s okay; it’s even encouraged. But you have to respect your audience. They’re the reason you’re presenting to begin with. 

To make sure we keep our audience in mind, I’ll add a third question to the mix: 


“Why?” is one of the best questions in the world that we stopped asking at age four when we started to annoy our parents. It’s a wonderful question because it challenges you to critically justify your reasoning. Consider these “Why?” situations:

You want to use some images from ClipArt in your presentation.

Why? Why do those ClipArt images work better than a higher quality photo from a stock photo or Creative Commons site? Why will the audience want to take you seriously when you use one of these guys?

MS Office ClipArt Guy

You want to type the bulk of what you’re saying in bullet points on your slides.

Why? Why is that better than a compelling visual? Why should your audience even listen to you when they can just read your slides? Why should they find that more interesting or enjoyable? 

You want to lecture for all 40 minutes of your 40 minute talk. 

Why? Why is that the best way? Why should you lecture instead of including an activity or two? Why should the audience want to listen to you talk for 40 minutes straight?

“What is my point?”, and “Why does it matter?” are excellent guides as you design your content. “Why?” is the best question to keep you on track. When you find an area of your presentation where you feel stuck, or something just feels not quite good enough, ask yourself why you’re trying to do it that way. The answer will be both enlightening and empowering.

In the next post in this series, we’ll apply that “Why?” question to the most common approach for delivering presentations. 

Michael Vaughn

My name is Michael. During the day I help Elon faculty, staff, and students find new ways to use technology to enhance their teaching and learning. I've also collaborated with SMEs, faculty and instructional designers to design and develop fully online courses, presented for high school and college audiences on social media and educational technology, and have a background in faculty training for elearning technologies.

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