Presenting, Act II: Wherein we examine the bones of the beast

October 30, 2023

OK, at this point the initial shock has worn off. You’ve been asked (or told) to give a presentation. You know the subject, the time and the venue. You’ve followed the advice in our initial post on giving presentations and had a good hard think about who you’ll be talking to and how you want them to react.

Now, prepare for a second wave of anxiety as you contemplate how to build the thing. How do you avoid creating one of those presentations that slips erratically from one incoherent slide to the next, or that seem to warp time itself so that each moment becomes a lifetime? How do you grab the audience’s attention for 10 minutes, 30 minutes or (heaven forfend) an hour, and leave them enlightened rather than perplexed?

In this post, we’ll discuss how to build a presentation that keeps an audience engaged and following the thread. It might be surprising to learn that it’s not all about being charming and witty, or impressing them with great elocution. It’s about the structure of your presentation, the bones that hold it all together. And it’s about giving the audience an X-ray view to those bones so they can see how the thing is built.


There is no single structure that works best for all presentations. Depending on circumstances you may find it is most effective to tell a chronological story, or create a sort of roadmap with major landmarks along the way. You might lay out a few themes and come back to them at crucial points, like a comedian who introduces a joke and then circles back to it a few times throughout a routine.

The one structure you probably want to avoid is a whodunit. The fun thing about a mystery novel is that the reader has to think, collecting all the little clues along the way and trying to figure out how they fit together before the secret is revealed. For a live audience absorbing a presentation on anything as complex as biotech, that’s an impossible task. So don’t try to build suspense or save the main message for the end — tell the audience from the outset where they are going and how they’ll be getting there. Lay out what the talk is all about, what it will cover and how the audience’s understanding of the subject will be changed once it is over.

Imagine in the first few moments of your presentation that you have just been elected president, and are taking the podium to make the inaugural address. Dazzling oratory and a presidential bearing won’t hurt, but all the shivering dignitaries on the Capitol Lawn, the people watching at home and the leaders of virtually every other country in the world want to know one thing: What are you going to do now? Just as the inaugural address lays out the most important things the new president intends to say and do in the coming days and months, your opening remarks should lay out your plans for the coming minutes or hours. Give the people what they want.

Slide Discipline

Once you’ve decided on a structure it’s time to start fleshing it out, which usually means building a slide deck to summarize your main points. Once again, it is important to remember that the slides are for the audience, not you. You can use them to remind yourself what to say, but they should not be densely packed notes of every single talking point. If the audience has to read your slides, they won’t be listening to what you are saying.

Ideally, each slide should convey a single idea using a limited selection of words and images. And there shouldn’t be too many of them – if you find yourself creating 80 slides for a 30-minute presentation, you’re trying to stuff 10 pounds of potatoes into a five-pound sack (some readers may be familiar with a different version of this idiom).

In a future post we’ll consider the actual act of presenting – how to rehearse, deliver your talk and take audience questions. But there is one more issue around building a presentation that often generates stress and uncertainty, and that is how to end.


If you think about great movies or TV shows, it’s often the final moments that are most memorable. Dustin Hoffman extracting Elaine from her wedding in “The Graduate”; Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star in “Star Wars”; Walter White bleeding out on the floor of a meth lab in “Breaking Bad.” You should craft your ending with that power in mind. Say something memorable that will stick with the audience, and make sure you re-emphasize your most important points very clearly as you wind things up.

Some experts recommend making your final words a call to action – a statement of what you want the audience to do with this information you’ve just shared. Others recommend thanking them for their time. But the first can sometimes feel a little aggressive, and the second may sound a little too meek, as if the audience really didn’t want to be there and was just listening politely for your benefit. If neither of those options feels right you can try offering a benediction, an expression of good wishes for the audience that connects you to them and perhaps to each other.

President Bill Clinton often did this by ending his speeches with the words “God bless you, and God bless America.” That’s probably not going to work in a business or scientific setting, but something analogous — maybe about reaching shared goals or working toward future breakthroughs — often will. So with that final piece of advice, and until our next post, we wish you all successful and impactful presenting.


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