20 presentation ideas that put
the audience first
Because how you present is just as important as what you present
Poll Everywhere's business is effective presentations.
An effective presentation is a memorable one. If the audience doesn't remember what you said, then they can’t act on it.
"Being remembered is just as important as being right," said Poll Everywhere CEO Jeff Vyduna. "I've seen people, myself included, spend hours designing charts and bulleted lists just to prove how right they are. But that effort is wasted if no one listens."
Being memorable means showing empathy for the audience. By placing their needs first, you enable them to better concentrate on what you are presenting. The Poll Everywhere team is continually exploring new presentation ideas and techniques to help us connect with our peers. Here are our top suggestions to help you deliver a more memorable presentation.
CEO, Poll Everywhere
1. Create a S.T.A.R. moment to emphasize key informationIf you want the audience to remember one thing from your presentation, then you need to spend an outsized amount of time on a single moment. That's your S.T.A.R. moment. S.T.A.R. stands for Something They'll Always Remember. It could be an unusual prop or emotional story – anything that breaks from the norm of your presentation and grabs the audience's attention. This concept was created by Nancy Duarte, founder and CEO of Duarte Designs. She helped Al Gore design his presentation for An Inconvenient Truth , which included a literal off-the-chart S.T.A.R. moment. In the film, Gore uses a machine to lift himself up above a chart showing global carbon dioxide concentration to illustrate how unnaturally high that concentration could get in the next 50 years. It's a visually impactful way to drive home that piece of information.
2. Alter your presentation style every three minutesCognitive neuroscientist Dr. Carmen Simon suggests that presenters change something about their presentation every three minutes. She calls this a “cut," like cutting between shots in a movie. Variation is exciting. People will normalize experiences without variation. That's why, when someone asks you to describe your favorite part of a boring movie, you say, "I dunno, it all ran together." You don't want your presentation to "run together." You want it to stand out clearly so that people remember – and act upon – what you said. This brings us back to "cuts." A cut is a simple transition from one presentation style – lecturing, Q&A – to another. It mixes things up, thereby making each section feel more distinct.
"We are judged by our outliers. When you see someone tank during a presentation, you fixate on that point above all others. The inverse is also true."
CEO, Poll Everywhere
Designer, Poll Everywhere
3. Help attendees mentally switch gearsAlways be mindful of what people were doing before your presentation. They may have a lot on their mind when your presentation begins. Give them a strong context switch. When I present, I like to engage people right away, even before I introduce myself. I may ask, "Quick show of hands: how many people mentor other designers?" It's not an interesting question, but it gives people a chance to brag so they're more likely to engage. Next, I'll ask, "Who wants to mentor other designers?" and, "Who wants a mentor but is too afraid to ask?" At this point, everyone has raised their hand at least once. They've also forgotten about whatever they were thinking about before.
4. Ensure your eyeline rests on the audience
Always make sure you're facing the audience when presenting slides. Don't face away from them, or turn to one side. Ensure the eyeline to your content is close to your eyeline to the audience. Otherwise, you'll have to break eye contact with them when you check your slides or notes.And when you break eye contact with the audience, they break eye contact with you. It's an invitation to tune out of your presentation because you're no longer speaking directly to them.
Think about how a teleprompter is set up on TV. It's always on the same eyeline as the camera. That way the speaker is always speaking directly to, and engaged with, the viewers.
5. Use positive reinforcement to drive participationPositive reinforcement takes many forms: prizes, gamification, immediate praise to whoever speaks first, and so on. This is good for two reasons: it sets the stage for people to get that dopamine release, and it lets the audience know that the facilitator will reward them for participating. It's a signal that now is the time to pay attention. For example, Poll Everywhere employees know that when I facilitate a meeting there will be prizes, it will be fun, there's gonna be toys, and it will be a safe space. They don't have to worry about being too loud or self-censoring, nor do they have to worry about being heard.
6. Small toys can help attendees stay focusedIt’s a rule of thumb that you can get someone to pay attention for 38 minutes before they check out. This is hardly reliable. You never know how people are feeling before they entered your presentation. Maybe they just took a bunch of cold medication. Maybe they have a date later. These distractions can eat away at your 38 minutes – leaving you with a more realistic 8 to 15 minutes. Because of this, it's a good idea to provide structured opportunities for people to check out and fidget as needed. I provide little toys – tops, rubber bands – for people to enjoy during my presentations. They give the audience a chance to vent any frustration or excitement without disrupting the group.
7. Always have something to fill the silenceIf you need silence during a presentation, so people can read or work individually, always provide some sort of noise or sensory input. I use a small device called a Buddha Machine that fills silence with meditation white noise. This sound helps attendees focus without distracting them from the task at hand. Introverts can feel very awkward in silence. That awkwardness can lead to introspection about how people are perceiving them, how their body looks that day, and so on. All this internal noise disrupts their concentration. On the flip side, extroverts may feel the need to fill silence with small talk. You do not want small talk anywhere near your presentation. It's distracting and wastes valuable time.
"Ensure there's variability in your tone of voice. This, along with using expressive body language, helps hold people's attention."
Designer, Poll Everywhere
Matthew Du Pont
Sales, Poll Everywhere
8. Designate an advocate for remote attendeesA remote advocate is someone who is physically present at the presentation, but is experiencing it from a remote attendee's point of view. They help remote attendees get floor time during discussions, and ensure the audio setup is functioning properly. In my experience, it's tough for someone dialing in to know when is an appropriate time to speak. This anxiety can cause them to not speak up at all – benefiting no one. At Poll Everywhere, we have each remote join a video conference with their webcam turned off. When someone remote wishes to speak, they switch their webcam on. The advocate sees this and announces, "Jeff has something to add." Having everyone keep their webcam off by default also saves bandwidth, and is less distracting.
9. Delegate timeboxing and choose a playful audio cue
Moderating a panel discussion can be just as tough as participating. You need to constantly ask yourself, 'What's the purpose of this event? Is the current discussion working towards that goal? Should I intervene or call on someone else?' and so on. The more tasks you can delegate, the more focused – and effective – you will be.A simple task all moderators should delegate is timeboxing. During Poll Everywhere's regular planning meetings, we have an employee who delights in hitting a huge gong whenever someone exceeds their 90-second allotment. Choosing a cutoff sound or ritual that's playful makes it feel more like a reminder, and less like a reprimand. It can actually build positive anticipation in the audience, which encourages contribution.
"When running a meeting or requesting feedback, explicitly set norms for the level of fidelity and type of feedback you want."
Sales, Poll Everywhere
Product Manager, Poll Everywhere
10. Ditch the chairs if a presentation needs to end fastIf you want a presentation to go quickly, make everyone stand. People get fidgety if they stand for too long. They want it to be temporary – whereas sitting implies long durations of work. This is why “standup” meetings should require standing. They're for giving quick updates and assigning action items. I was once invited to a 15-minute meeting in a conference room only to discover the organizer had removed all the chairs. And you know what, it lasted exactly 15 minutes. Sure, some people had that 'Wait, what?' look on their face, but it went much faster. It's also much harder to mess around on your phone or laptop while you're standing.
11. Be careful with the icebreakers you chooseAccording to Google's Project Aristotle research, the key to an efficient workplace is psychological safety. This means creating an environment where everyone can voice their opinions without being fearful of being shot down. I do this with icebreakers. There are plenty of good icebreaker examples, so here's one that didn't work. At a previous company, we broke into small groups and spent five minutes each reciting statements about ourselves. Each statement had to start with, "I am…" or "My deeper truth is…" Guess what? It got really personal, really fast. It was emotionally draining for everyone, and then we had to go right back to work. No cooldown. No camaraderie. As a result, it just felt uncomfortable.
"Asking general questions creates a psychological safety effect that diffuses tension and conflict by letting people relax and think about something other than a problem or work."
Product Manager, Poll Everywhere
COO, Poll Everywhere
12. Make time for reading before, or during, a presentationHow to handle required reading is a big divide in the communication world. Should you send it out beforehand, or fit it in during the presentation? Personally, I love the pre-read. It saves you precious time during your presentation, and lets you jump straight to the heart of the matter. Of course, you can never be certain that everyone will actually read the material. One solution comes from presentation expert Edward Tufte , who asks the audience to spend the first 15 minutes of his presentations reading. This gets everyone on the same page, and ensures they have a contextual baseline for what you're going to discuss during the presentation.
13. Know that whoever speaks first sets the toneWhen presenting alongside multiple speakers, pay special attention to whoever speaks first. How that person talks, and what they talk about, sets the tone for everyone else. Let's say your staff meetings tend to feel slow and drawn out. Find someone who speaks quickly and succinctly and have them speak first. This sets a positive cadence for everyone. The other participants will naturally try to emulate the presentation style of that first speaker. You can even coatch this person beforehand to help them achieve exactly what you're looking for.
14. Know how to resolve conflicts before they startThere are few things that ruin a presentation more spectacularly than a protracted argument. In these moments, you need a clear path to conflict resolution that everyone has agreed upon. Whether you have one person decide, put the issue to a vote, or try to reach a consensus, everyone needs to agree on the path and understand why it was chosen. This needs to be done before disagreements happen. Once you have your path, call out any deviation from it and address why it happened. There's zero point in choosing a path if you're not going to follow it. People can disagree, but once the conflict has been resolved both parties must respect the decision. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos calls this idea "disagree and commit."
15. Each attendee needs a pressure valveA pressure valve is simply a way of recognizing and addressing issues that, if left unchecked, could cause bigger problems within the company. At Poll Everywhere, we use a Q&A poll at the end of each weekly town hall meeting to crowdsource discussion items from the entire company. The poll is presented from a web browser, people submit items from the privacy of their phones, and the results appear live for everyone to see. This is a quick-and-easy way to crowdsource important announcements, coworker recognition, and underlying problems all in one place. It gives everyone a voice.
16. Build camaraderie with a shared moment of Zen
Set aside a few minutes for everyone to learn something new. It could be a fun fact someone read in the news, or an inspiring quote. Poll Everywhere's customer support team, for example, presents a few notable comments made by our presenters each week that the company reads over together.This creates a ritualized context for something that's cool and interesting for the entire team. And because everyone is seeing and absorbing this information for the first time, it's a great way to start a conversation. Everyone is on the same page. There are a lot of podcasts that do something like this as well, and The Daily Show is really good at it with their moments of Zen.
17. Find creative uses for shared artifactsIf you're running a presentation with multiple speakers, try tossing a teddy bear across the room. A physical object that denotes whose turn it is to speak is a great refocusing device. It's a visual representation of where everyone's attention should be. Tossing this object carries a certain energy as well, which pulls people back into the discussion. You just have to be judicious about giving the item to those who aren't asking for it aggressively. Google took this idea in an interesting direction. They wanted to cultivate a culture that instills trust by embracing failure – so they introduced Whoops the Monkey.
18. Hook the audience with a strong visual metaphorIn an article for the Harvard Business Review , presentation expert Nancy Duarte said, "Metaphors can help by tapping what learning theorists call prior knowledge to make a connection between what people already understand through experience and what they have yet to discover." In a presentation, metaphors can be visual or verbal. Personally, I have more fun with the visual ones. People expect presentation visuals to be all charts and bullet points. Subverting those expectations with a little humor goes a long way towards making your material memorable.
"In communication, you want to present information in an inverted-pyramid structure, starting with the high-level takeaways before drilling down into the nitty-gritty details."
COO, Poll Everywhere
Sales, Poll Everywhere
19. Let people leave if they don't need to be thereAllow people to leave if they don't need to be at your presentation. If your job has nothing to do with what's being discussed, and you have nothing to contribute, then you shouldn't stay just to stay. I'd much rather have somebody leave and go work at their desk than stick around and work while I'm speaking. It's disruptive for the other attendees, and less productive for the odd-person-out. This is something that’s more applicable in meetings, especially larger ones. Simply reiterate the purpose of the meeting up front – the objective – and kindly remind people that they can duck out if they have nothing to add. That's all there is to it. No one should feel pressured or obligated to stick around for no good reason.
20. Set an agenda, share it, and stick to itMeetings are expensive. They take time away from people's day-to-day duties, so it's vital that you accomplish the goal of your meeting. This takes discipline. That's why I try to create as detailed of an agenda as possible for my meetings. Agendas cut back on rambling, and help everyone stay focused. If someone has something they want to discuss right now and can see it listed later in the agenda, that steers them back on course. If their topic isn't on the agenda, I make sure they can write it in. Keep your agenda in a shared place (Google Docs, for example). That way, each person can see what needs to be covered in the time allotted.
"End a meeting early if you're done. You don't need to fill the entire length of time just because it's on the calendar. Half-hour meeting done in 15? Meeting adjourned."
Sales, Poll Everywhere