Creating Effective Presentations for Business and Life in General

Last Updated 20 November 2014

Since 2000, I've done well over three-hundred presentations. Between teaching wilderness and remote area medicine, coaching CrossFit and training athletes, and heavily in business for both sales, strategy, and operations. I'm no expert however, and I think I've learned more being victim to way too many PowerPoints where the presenter comes unprepared even to read the bullet points on the screen. I think we've all been there - sitting in a room reading slides faster than the speaker can talk, waiting for the presenter to turn around and finish so we can move on with our day.

In business, and life in generally, effective communication enables us to achieve our mission faster. In every project or mission I've been part of, communication and lack of shared understanding are among the top reasons for failure. It is the critical job of the presenter then to create mutual understanding in a way that addresses real problems, provides the right data appropriately analyzed, and uses the right information to effectively get the job done. Perhaps more importantly is what the presenter leaves out in order to effective deliver the information that the audience really needs to know.

Effective communication and shared stakeholder understanding allows us to achieve great things. We do this by intentionally communicating with each other and our stakeholders in ways that provide education, common understanding and clearly stated challenges for the purpose or furthering knowledge or leveraging the vast intellectual power of the team or audience. As a presenter and communicator, the way in which presentations are designed, formatted, delivered and written is the difference between success and failure. Therefore, you must consider the end goals and deliver the information in a way that is relevant. This requires a lot of thinking, creativity, and editing work. In the words of Edward Tufte, “Design should be based on the fundamental analytical task at hand.”

I compiled some notes about the key principles for the presentation of information based on courses, books, and experience. Most notably, Edward Tufte's One Day Course which I highly recommend. Whether it is a sales presentation, teaching a lesson, or addressing project challenges or team problem solving, these principles are the same.

Edward Tufte's Principles of Good Design

The following can be used as a guideline or checklist for the design of a presentation.

  • Show comparisons.
  • Show causality, mechanism and explanation.
  • Multivariate analysis - real problems are multi-variate. Do not simplify
  • Integrate real evidence.
  • Document sources and data and be open and truthful with your assumptions and interpretations of the data.
  • Content counts most of all - the best way to improve presentations is content and you should always be looking for documentation to support your information.
  • Your audience is King! Not your organization, and definitely not you.. (Nancy Duarte's principle added in)


Whether writing words or graphs, formatting should be such that nothing can be erased without erasing information. Words should not be contained in boxes as it draws undue attention to form over information. Everything you write should contain reasons to believe you, the more generic the information is, the less plausible your argument. Any statement made should be backed up by some source, not necessarily notated, but available should the reader ask. Cherry-pickers, people who use sources only to support what they are saying, while hiding information, loose credibility very very fast. Detail helps credibility.


If your graphic looks like a refugee from a corporate annual report, start over. PowerPoint graphs and charts. Boxes, lines and other formatting should make only the smallest effective difference in a modest, minimal with the least possible contrast.


Tables should always be put in substantive order, based off the needs of the user looking at the information. Never put information in alphabetical order unless it is a phone book, where the user is best served by that format. The most effective typeface for tables is Gill Sans or Trebuchet.


PowerPoint, although I usually use Google Slides, should only be used to communicate graphics, not text or bullet points. Text may be used as a graphic in order to lead the audience, but should not be the focus of the presentation. The presenter should NEVER have to look at the screen as a cue on what to talk about.

Creating Effective Presentations

Find good models and emulate them. In the words of T.S. Elliot, “Talent imitates, genius steals.” Look for great presentations and mimic them and incorporate the great elements into your own method. Some great examples can be found among Apple’s Keynote Presentations at MacWorld which is available online. The website also contains great presentations by business, non-profit, social and government leaders.

  • Make good data tables. Use solid, applicable information focused only on content with as minimal formatting as possible.
  • Create a "supergraphic". Whether it is a plot map, activities, manifestation, annotated image, a supergraphic creates an interactive form allowing the reader to explore the information based off their own questions or curiosities.
  • Use an appropriate intellectual model. Most corporate reports and marketing lack credibility, real information, and generate distrust. Follow the models of successful elite level newspapers and journals like the Wall Street Journal, Science or Nature.
  • Generate Credibility. This depends on your reputation, hands-on personal knowledge of detail. You must convey a sense that you know what you are talking about. A large piece of this is making a data set available to the public, if you are questioned, you should provide credible data if needed and anticipate such questions.

How to Prepare

  1. Content is key, ensure your content has integrity and you can generate credibility.
  2. Practice, practice, practice. Practice in front of someone who will freely criticize you. Video is an effective method as well as an audio recording. Listen and correct filler words like “umm” or repeating habits like clicking a pen or tapping. It's a humbling experience, but invaluable.

Presentation Format

  1. Provide short reading period for audience to read through your presentation - people can read two to four times faster than you can talk.
  2. Present your information in the proper format. PROBLEM -> RELEVANCE -> SOLUTION.
  3. Provide period for questions and answers at the end.

Making a Presentation

  • PowerPoint is a projector operating system. No logos, bullets or transitions should be used.
  • Don’t attract attention to your method. Use paper. A word-processing program is all you generally need for layout
  • Format of the presentation should be: PROBLEM -> RELEVANCE [why should audience care] -> SOLUTION.
  • Add graphics, pictures, and figures that emphasize and support the information.
  • Create a high-resolution handout. The ideal handout is a landscaped 11x17 page folded in half, creating a 4-page handout which is 8.5” x 11”.


  1. Show up early to your own presentation.
  2. Weave a narrative, NEVER APOLOGIZE in an introduction, go as long as you can without using a pronoun and focus on the content.
  3. Finish early when possible, if allowed. Likewise, if a client is paying for you to present information then they deserve the time they paid for, and the rule does not apply.

Guy Kawasaki's 10/20/30 Rule

10 slides / 20 minutes / 30 pt font. A complete link to the article is blow in the "Resources" section.

Finally, the TED Commandments which are given to speakers giving Talks

  1. Thou Shalt Not Simply Trot Out thy Usual Shtick
  2. Thou Shalt Dream a Great Dream, or Show Forth a Wondrous New Thing, Or Share Something Thou Hast Never Shared Before
  3. Thou Shalt Reveal thy Curiosity and Thy Passion
  4. Thou Shalt Tell a Story
  5. Thou Shalt Freely Comment on the Utterances of Other Speakers for the Skae of Blessed Connection and Exquisite Controversy
  6. Thou Shalt Not Flaunt thine Ego. Be Thou Vulnerable. Speak of thy Failure as well as thy Success.
  7. Thou Shalt Not Sell from the Stage: Neither thy Company, thy Goods, thy Writings, nor thy Desparate need for Funding; Lest Thou be Cast Aside into Outer Darkness.
  8. Thou Shalt Remember all the while: Laughter is Good.
  9. Thou Shalt Not Read thy Speech.
  10. Thou Shalt Not Steal the Time of Them that Follow Thee

Articles & Resources

Here is an example of a great slide deck.

SMOKE - The Convenient Truth \[1st place Worlds Best Presentation Contest] by Empowered Presentations from Empowered Presentations
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