Don’t Miss the First Two Steps of a Focused Presentation

Nathan Olson   •   08.22.2019

Presentations are always expensive, but only sometimes effective. Every minute spent in a meeting multiplies by the number of people in the room. When we’re the one talking, we need to make sure the time spent is worth it for everyone there.

We have an obligation to our audience to keep our message streamlined. When we are respectful of our co-workers’ time, our meetings become more effective. But this goal of being more streamlined starts long before the meeting: it begins when we start putting together our presentation.


Getting started

Let’s say we’ve sat down at our computer, opened up PowerPoint, and are ready to create the presentation! Unfortunately, we’ve already gone in the wrong direction.1 Before we even boot up our machine, we need to take care of two necessary items.

First, we need to know our purpose. We need to understand why we’re giving this presentation, and what we’re hoping to get out of it. Do we want to share our research on solution options A, B, and C, and want our manager to agree that B is the best option? Do we want to share the results of a successful program to get budgeting for another year? Understanding our purpose will help us structure the presentation with that in mind. That gives the narrative focus. It helps us ensure that everything we add to that presentation is adding to that purpose.

Second, we should have an outline. We should structure our presentation into the main areas we want to cover. This should be a to-do list of the points we need to communicate to the audience for them to understand our purpose.

Once we have these two items, we can fill in the blanks with additional details, supporting documentation, charts, and graphics. Having an outline gives us a solid scaffolding to hang this supplementary information on, which helps our audience retain focus.

I like to take a notebook and a pen and go on a walk away from my desk. I can jot down my thoughts as I formulate my plan so that I don’t forget them before I’m back in the office. Emails and calls can’t distract me, and I’m not tempted to open PowerPoint before I’m ready.


Presentation junk

Edward Tufte is a well-known statistician famous for his pioneering in the field of data visualization. One of Tufte’s key concepts is centered around “data-ink,” which is the non-erasable core of a chart; the non-redundant content displayed.2 Everything else, such as tick marks, repeated information, and extra graphics that don’t add data, Tufte categorizes as “chart junk.”

Useful visualizations have a high amount of data-ink and very little chart junk.

Presentations can benefit from using the data-ink ratio concept in their design. Any words, pictures, charts, or animations used in our slide deck that doesn’t add to the core message are “presentation junk.” Any distractions from the purpose at hand and makes our presentations less effective.

Here are some heuristics we can use to avoid presentation junk:

  • Don’t make the audience read our slides and listen to us talk at the same time. Research shows us the human mind is terrible at processing multiple threads of information simultaneously.3 If our audience is reading the slide, they aren’t listening to us talk. Keep the number of words on the slide to a minimum to avoid this distraction. Try a single statement or one-sentence quote. Allowing the audience to read quickly, then listen to us orally explain and dive into details, will be more likely to retain the audience’s focus.
  • Avoid bullet points. Bullet points are an excellent formatting option for written content since they break up a list – for the purpose of reading. When used in a visual presentation, while we’re still talking about the first bullet point, the audience may be reading the second and third items in the list.
  • Good pictures speak for themselves. If we want to add depth to a point, add an emotional connection, or create an analogy to explain our message. We can use a picture to illustrate this way better than we could only verbally. It will also connect and stick with the audience better. We don’t need words on the slide; find a well-suited HD image, size it to fit the screen, and rely on our verbal expression to relay the message.
  • Good charts also speak for themselves. If you have quantitative data you want to share in your presentation, use a chart to illustrate this, as opposed to making the audience read a bunch of numbers on your slide. By representing data visually, you can again remove all the words on the screen (except those that we would consider data-ink) and talk about the chart verbally to state your conclusions.
  • Optional: Add all of your verbal content into the ‘Notes’ section of PowerPoint. This helps us reduce the urge to add most of it to the main slide, cluttering up the screen. Also, it can be helpful if we send out the presentation to the audience before or after, as they’ll have all those notes available if the meeting isn’t recorded.


Value your co-workers’ time

Focus on the time you need, not the scheduled time. If we’re able to give the presentation, answer questions, reach a consensus, and it only takes 10 minutes out of the 30 planned, end the meeting early. No one ever complains that a meeting ends early.

All of the content in our presentation must be necessary, not just situationally helpful. Any content that is nice to have, in case someone has a particular question, or if the audience wants more background, should be moved out of the core presentation. I’d recommend creating and prepping slides for some of this information. Then, hide or move it to after the conclusion slide. If the slide is needed, we can quickly pull it up. If it’s not needed, we don’t waste time.


Lose the slide deck

One other option, which will subvert this entire article, is to ditch PowerPoint altogether. Instead, we can create a one-page, single-side printed document with our main points, charts, and supporting information. There are a few situations where I would recommend this:

  • If our purpose and message are brief, and we wanted to hold a presentation for the sake of discussion.
  • If we want to allow the audience to review the documentation at their own pace, Powerpoint dictates the order and timing of your content. Providing a printout enables the audience to view all our content for as long as they would like. This is a good option when presenting a lot of data and charts we want the audience to interpret. Each individual can review the data at their own pace.
  • If we want multiple, related decisions made in the meeting, create a worklist of these items on the one-pager. Now the group knows every item that needs to be discussed, as opposed to swirling on one item for 90% of the time.

In printouts, show written content in lists, bullet points, or single sentences. Any paragraph content will encourage the audience to read for longer periods, and not listen to us or the group discussion.


Get to the point

PowerPoint or not, when giving presentations, we need to focus on our singular purpose. If you want an audience to be engaged and feel that the meeting is worth their time, they need to know why they’re there.

When used fully, these principles can create presentations that look different from a lot of traditional PowerPoint presentations. They look much simpler and often appear to have less content. That’s because as the presenter, we should want the attention to be on us! That’s why we’re taking the time to deliver the message. Giving more streamlined presentations allows the audience to provide the speaker with more focus and walk away with a clearer understanding of the message.



  1. Presentation Zen
  1. Graphical heuristics: Data-ink ratio (Edward Tufte)
  1. Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again.


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Nathan Olson

Senior Consultant

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