Four Keys to Engaging Presentations

  • By John Sanchez
  • Published: 9/14/2020

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You’re giving a presentation and you want to make it really count. How do you go about making it really impactful?

1. Define your purpose clearly.

First, understand that people don’t want to invest an hour listening to you speak to get new information. Read that again because it’s important. People do not go to a presentation just to get new information. Reading is a much more efficient way to get new information. If that is the sole reason for your presentation, save yourself and your audience tons of time and send them a memo. Done and done.

2. Be yourself.

Now, I either have your attention or you think I’m a disgruntled presenter. I love speaking to groups, but I do it for a purpose. Get clear on your purpose for speaking before you do anything else. Do you want to influence, persuade, motivate, or inspire? These are all great reasons to speak to a group. Giving information is part of presenting, but it shouldn’t be your main or only purpose in presenting. There should be something in your presentation that your audience can’t get from just reading your speaker notes; otherwise, you are totally unnecessary.

That something is you. What about you makes you uniquely qualified to give this presentation? By the way, if you can’t answer that question, don’t give the presentation. Infuse the entire presentation with you in ways that benefit your audience and give them huge value. Maybe you’re super expressive with your body language and that gets people very engaged. Maybe you’re funny and your humor keeps people leaning in. Be yourself.

Don’t worry about not sounding polished. People connect with relatable presenters more than they connect with polished presenters. Connect with them and you’ve hit a home run. But, don’t take my word for this. Google top speakers in the world and watch some of their videos on YouTube. One of my favorite speakers says “ain’t” and “what up” all the time and Fortune 500 companies and professional sports teams pay him big bucks to inspire and motivate their people. The key is, he doesn’t talk like that to be cool. That’s how he really talks in his daily life and he is himself on stage. He can talk like that because of his message and his genuine relatability. Be yourself.

3. Use the hero’s journey structure.

Stories provide a structure that engages our brains in ways that improve how we process information. It doesn’t matter if you’re speaking to inform, persuade, lead, or for any other purpose. Stories are a very effective way to communicate, and they’re not just for entertainment.

You’ve probably only seen the hero’s journey in movies or read it in books and it is often overcomplicated when I’ve heard people explain it. Maybe that’s because there are twelve steps in the structure of the hero’s journey. But, once you hear the basic structure, you’ll realize it’s extremely simple. The hero starts out an ordinary person. They have some reason to be called to do something extraordinary and they initially refuse the idea because it seems so daunting. They meet a mentor who guides them through the changes they’ll need to make to go on this big adventure, and they cross over into a new set of challenges. After meeting many smaller challenges, they take on some big climactic challenge, they overcome it and reap rewards. Transformed, they go back to their once-ordinary world, but they’re forever changed. That’s the whole hero’s journey in a nutshell, and if you think about your favorite movie or book, I guarantee you can dissect it into these parts. Here is a simple visual of the journey.

Take anything you want to communicate, use these steps as an outline and fill in the details of your story. Your presentation will be more effective. Don’t take my word for it, though. Try it.

You may be saying to yourself, “this structure doesn’t fit my presentation”. If that is really the case, I suggest you don’t communicate whatever it is in a presentation format. If you’re explaining the budget process and there is nothing transformative about it, send a memo. Everything doesn’t belong in a presentation and that’s okay. That being said, you can communicate otherwise dry information in a very engaging way using this story format. I would argue that I could use this story structure to show you how to present financial information more effectively. As a matter of fact, I have, in a communication skills course AFP offers.

4. Focus on ONE thing.

Now you have your story laid out and you’re ready to tell it. But wait—it’s time to focus. Focus on one central message you want your audience to get because they won’t remember every detail, and every detail isn’t critical for them to get the main point.

The single biggest mistake I see people make in presenting to groups of people is trying to make too many points. Everyone seems to have gone to the same class that tells them their one-hour presentation needs to have three main points, each with three sub-topics. Nobody is going to remember all that, nor is that a very effective structure. “But, John, that’s how everyone who asks me to speak makes me give them my presentation. They dictate my outline format.” No problem, me too. Give them what they want in your outline and even in your PowerPoint deck. Just make it high level bullet points and slides that support your one main message. Cover each point you list, but don’t spend a ton of time on it unless it supports that main message. Do not let form dictate function in your presentation, ever.


If you want to deliver engaging, memorable presentations, get clear on why you are presenting, lay it out using the hero’s journey structure and then focus on one main point throughout your presentation. Then, when you give your presentation, be yourself and you’ll hit a home run.

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