How to Make More Persuasive Presentations

I’ve seen countless business and academic presentations. Most people present relatively well. Less than 10% of presentations, however, really pack a punch. Here’s why.

Most presentations lack a clear persuasive logic. The inner workings of most presentations follow an informative rather than persuasive framework. As a result, we see lots of orderly presentations that do not have the persuasive effect most speakers want.

We’re missing a significant opportunity here. We are almost always making a case for something: a bigger budget, more personnel, added support from our boss, etc. Further, most professional trainers teach us how to make presentations more comfortable but not persuasive. Most college courses in public speaking only get to persuasive speaking briefly at the end of the semester if at all.

Our Main Points of the Body Matter More than We Realize

One of the best places to start to make our presentations more persuasive is to reorganize our main body points. The traditional informative speaking style offers several common ways to organize main points: chronologically, topically, spatially, by cause-effect, etc. However, these are rarely the best choice if we want to convince.

For instance, I was once asked to help people in a wonderful nonprofit organization improve their presentations. This organization specialized in raising money and labor to restore old buildings in small towns. They spent their time and effort on a worthwhile goal, making old downtown buildings look new again.

When I watched their presentations, I noticed they normally chose a chronological order for their main points. They showed before and after pictures of past restoration projects in nearby towns to convince new supporters to get involved. Their information focused almost entirely on the buildings themselves that had been restored. The photos were great and fairly convincing. The presenters, too, were skilled and composed. Even their choice of before and after main points had a naturally persuasive feel. If I had to sum up their main argument, it would be beautification. Let me be clear. There’s nothing wrong with beautification accept that it is a one-dimensional argument. They were missing a valuable opportunity to make their presentations even more persuasive.

I suggested that a chronological order of their presentations was a good choice, but it was missing some additional ways to add weight to their argument. I recommended a problem-solution-benefit structure, one of the most compelling ways to order our main points.

The Problem

We provide a very persuasive foundation when we first address the problems our audience cares about. For instance, the restoration group’s speakers should have discussed all of the problems run down buildings cause small downtown areas. They could start with the need for beautification and then expand the argument to other associated needs and problems. They could discuss the downward spiral or “broken window effect” whereby even one abandoned building can spread the perception that other buildings will inevitably follow (i.e., the “blight” case). They could discuss the problem of the declining values of surrounding properties (i.e., the economic case). They could discuss the need for more viable downtown buildings to attract new businesses (i.e., the entrepreneurial case).

If we take the time to brainstorm a good list, we should be able to come up with between 3 to 4 clear problems without exaggerating our case. This develops a well-rounded look at the problems that might concern our audience and will make them much more willing to listen to our proposed solution. About 50% of the body of our presentation should be focused on the problem.

The Solution

When we explain the problems clearly-with statistics, stories, and other evidence-we prime our audience for our proposed solution. When presenting our solution, we should provide a concise and informative path for our listeners to follow. If we want our audience to donate money and time, for instance, then we should say it. “We would like you to help us raise as much of the $50,000 needed for the materials as possible. We also need between 10 to 12 volunteers to help do the work.” This element was missing from the restoration group’s chronological structure. A clear solution step makes it easy for your audience to take the action you propose.

If we’ve made a sincere, compelling argument about the problems, we should not be afraid to advocate for a clear solution. Because the solution portion of a presentation like this is fairly dry, we should not give this main point equal time. It should be the shortest of the main points, clear and concise but not neglected.

The Benefits

The last main point should focus on the likely benefits associated with adopting our solution. Once we’ve made our solution pitch, we should explain how our solution helps. Like the problem point, the benefits we explain should be diverse. The restoration group could have focused on how the building itself would look better, the blight would turn to gentrification, the property values would improve for everybody, and new business growth was more likely in a restored building. They could share numerous success stories about how that is exactly what happened in other communities.

As a rule of thumb, the benefits we forecast should resolve all of the problems we’ve introduce earlier in the presentation. In other words, we shouldn’t introduce the problem of nuclear war unless our proposed solution actually helps prevent it. We can also discuss the intangible emotional and psychological benefits associated with having the problem solved. The benefits point should be almost as long as our problem point in a business presentation.

In most cases, the elements for a truly persuasive presentation are available to us but remain untapped because we’ve chosen the wrong structure. We should be deliberate about choosing a structure for our main points that help us make our case in the most compelling way possible. The problem-solution-benefits structure is just one of many ways to add the punch our presentations need.