How to add instant structure to your presentation
You know your story, and your story makes sense to you. Your audience, however, will be hearing it for the first time, which means you need to recreate your story inside their minds. In order to create a sense of logical flow as you recreate your story, you need one essential ingredient: structure.
A good structure smoothly weaves your ideas and messages together into a clear and naturally flowing story. But do you really need to spend time on adding structure when you’re creating your presentation? Isn’t it just enough to add a subject headline to each slide? How do you add structure? In this article, I’m spilling out the exact tricks and tools that I teach people in my presentation skills trainings so that your audience will easily follow your story.
| WHY YOU NEED TO ADD STRUCTURE
The setup of presentations is mostly linear. We expect our audience to start listening at the start of our presentation, and then follow us all the way through the end of our presentation. Unfortunately, that assumption hardly matches the reality, because people’s attention is inherently non-linear.
In today’s crowded world, everything is screaming for attention. That’s why we simply can’t afford to pay attention to everything that comes along. Instead, our attention is selective--we focus on what we think is important and relevant for us.
Then, whether or not we retain that attention depends on a number of things. If we are highly involved or motivated, we are more likely to stay focused. For example, if it is a life or death kind of situation, we will automatically pay close attention. On the other hand, if it is about something that is not urgent or interesting for us, we’ll loose attention.
Another thing that determines whether people will continue to pay attention is how difficult it is to continue to pay attention. We’re more likely to continue paying attention if it’s easy to do.
So when we sit down to listen to someone presenting, our initial attention might be grabbed by some catchy anecdote or funny picture at the start of the presentation. But if it’s not easy to follow whatever comes after that, we quickly loose attention.
So yes, grabbing your audience’s attention is important. But if you don’t make it easy for them to follow you from there, your effort to get their attention will be wasted.
You need to guide your audience’s attention from where they are right now to where you want them to be, making sure no one gets lost along the way. That means that it’s your responsibility as a speaker to make it as easy as possible for your audience to follow your story.
| WHY ADDING STRUCTURE IS OFTEN OVERLOOKED
As speakers, we are inherently biased. The structure of our story is obvious to us, because it’s already inside our heads. A talk may seem very well structured to us, but someone who is not familiar with the topic will probably disagree.
If the structure makes sense to your audience, then listening to your story will feel like a natural and logical flow. Plus, as a bonus, well-structured information is easier to memorize for your audience than information that has little or no structure.
| HOW NOT TO ADD STRUCTURE
Do you recognize the following strategy to add structure? When you’re preparing your presentation slides, you add a headline on each presentation slide that describes the topic that’s on that slide. While you’re presenting, you might say the headline out loud, just to signal to your audience that this is the topic that you will now be discussing.
You’re in the middle of a pitch. You click to the next presentation slide. The headline on this slide says “Previous Work”.
You look at the slide, clear your throat, and say “Right. Previous Work. Some of my previous work includes….”.
Sound familiar? Don’t worry if it does, because after reading this article, you’ll know how to do it differently.
The reason why this doesn’t work, is because this is not a strategy to add structure. It is a strategy to introduce a new topic. Just announcing a new topic doesn’t clarify how that topic relates to the previous topic. Just like announcing what you’re going to discuss during your presentation doesn’t clarify the immediate links between topics.
To add structure, you have to clarify how a new topic relates to the previous one every time you introduce a new topic. Structure is about creating relationships between your different topics and ideas.
Don’t make your audience work for it by assuming that they’ll create these relationships themselves as they listen to you. It’s not their responsibility to guide themselves through your story. You have to guide them.
| THE Q&A STRATEGY
One way to add structure to your talk is to formulate questions that guide listeners from one topic to the next. Think of a question that someone might have after hearing you talk about one topic and use the answer to that question as a direction for the next topic.
There are a few “buts” here. First of all, if you apply this trick every single time, then it might become annoying to our audience after a few slides. In other words, don’t use this strategy throughout your entire presentation.
Secondly, if your questions do not match the questions of the audience, then they don’t serve the goal of creating a logical flow. That means that you need to make sure that whatever question you ask in between two slides matches the question that is, at that point, also roaming in your audience’s mind. Answering a question that your audience wasn’t even thinking of might be more confusing than clarifying.
So in order for this strategy to be effective, you either need to know your audience well enough to be able to read their minds, OR you have someone who can represent your audience and is willing to serve as a guinea pig as you prepare your talk. If that’s not the case, then don’t use this strategy.
| THE TRANSITION SIGNALLING STRATEGY
Imagine your presentation as a row of beads. Each bead represents an idea or topic. Now, to your audience, these beads are all separate and unrelated. As a speaker, you can connect these beads using certain words that show how one bead relates to the other. These words are called transition words.
Transition words or phrases serve two purposes. First, they signal to the audience that a new idea or topic is introduced. The second purpose is that they also immediately indicate what the relationship between the previous and the next topic is. They are like signposts that guide the audience through your talk.
There are different types of transition words:
- Introducing a main point. For example, “A significant issue has been…”
- Rephrasing a main point. For example, “Let me put that another way…”
- Moving to another point. For example, “Now let’s consider…”
- Introducing a digression. For example, “That reminds me…”
- Introducing an example. For example, “One recent example…”
- Summarizing before moving on to another point. For example, “So that’s the general picture for X, now let’s look at Y.”
| HOW TO USE THE TRANSITION SIGNALLING STRATEGY
When you’re preparing your presentation and have laid out the ideas and topics you want to discuss, take a look at each idea or topic. How does it relate to the previous topic? Which transition words can and will you use to highlight that relationship?
You might discover that there’s really no connection between two topics or ideas. This is a sign that you should either move that topic to a different section of your presentation, or reconsider whether including that topic is even necessary at all.
When you’re presenting and using the transition words that you chose during your preparation, make sure that you attract the attention of your audience as you transition from one idea to another. Pause right before you use the transition words and make eye contact with your audience. Then, as you say the words, either slow down your pace for a bit or temporarily increase your voice’s volume. This will make it even easier for your audience to signal the transition from one idea to another.