A picture in their heads: Creative presentation ideas to persuade


“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear — not absence of fear.”— Mark Twain

We’ve all been there. It doesn’t matter whether you’re presenting to two or two thousand people, the anxiety of public speaking before a presentation can get to anyoneets everyone. What you are about to say — and how you say it — might change the course of your business. In fact, it may just change your life. You hope you’ve organized your ideas into a creative presentation that sells. If the message doesn’t land, you don’t even want to think about what will happen next...

Writing a creative presentation is hard work. Your message won’t just sell itself. You need great presentation to help carry your message through. Remember the old adage: "if you can't sell it to them, sing it to them?” Well, in today’s competitive business world your presentation had better sing from the rooftops.

The Dreaded PowerPoint

Never before has a business tool been the victim of so much derision and abuse. In many presentations PowerPoint slides are dead weight; a cue for the audience to catch up on their Instagram messages and texts. How can you, the presenter, compete against such instant gratification?

The secret lies in the visuals: the pictures, the graphics, the typography, and most crucially — the design. You simply can’t  throw bullet points on a slide and expect your message to land. You need great presentation design to complement and underscore your points. A great story demands great design.

This article will cover great presentation ideas to convince your audience and make your case. We’ll go over best practices and unique tactics, including those used by some of the most legendary presenters in the field.

Read on and rest assured: your next presentation is going to be the best presentation you’ve ever given.

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Structure of creative presentations

“It didn’t just change Apple, it changed the whole computer industry.”

The larger than life man presenting on the dark stage is cut off by excited applause and cheers from the crowd. He stops and waits to continue, hand in arm and gaze at his feet. As the audience quiets and he continues, his monologue is framed by a series of massive pictures of products, contrasted against a low-hanging grey fog.

His tone shifts, “Today, we’re introducing three revolutionary products.”

And the presentation’s tone shifts with him. The fog clears,  reveals an Apple logo. In the literal sense that the speech is reaching its dramatic apex, the presentation builds drama by reinforcing an implied narrative. That is to say, the speaker, and Apple, are about to lead the listener out of the dark and into the light.

This presentation, of course, was the one and only Steve Jobs unveiling the iPhone. It’s gone down as one of the most ubiquitous business presentations ever. He combined visionary storytelling with elements of drama, humor, and great design to sell a massive vision and introduce a totally new type of product.

After all, the iPhone that didn’t just change the computer industry, it changed the whole world.

Steve’s presentation utilizes two important techniques, which you can learn from to structure your presentations.

One idea per slide

Having a single idea is essential. It’s a play on the writing strategy you may have learned in school to cover one idea per paragraph of writing. A slide is to presenting what a paragraph is to writing. It’s a collection of ideas organized to support one overall point.

Having a single idea per slide helps to build the story too. Keith Quesenberry, a marketing professor, found during his research at Johns Hopkins that the most successful Super Bowl advertisements tended to be the ones with the most complete number of acts. A compelling organization of ideas made the entire advert more persuasive.

As you watch the video above, you’ll see Steve Jobs uses this tactic in a conscious way. In the first five minutes you’ll see several points where he hesitates and changes the slide before his next cue. It’s not always the most graceful, but it doesn’t need to be. Split overloaded ideas into multiple slides. The tactic of keeping one idea per slide works.

Prime the audience

The second tactic is a bit more unconventional. It involves a slow-burn introduction before the product reveal. Steve Jobs didn’t walk out and wave the iPhone at the audience shouting, “This is the future!” He created a story arc, with a build in as he  recounted Apple’s legacy. He claimed to be introducing three products before admitting that to be a lie. There was only one product which was a fusion of all three attributes. That product was the iPhone.

But why the long build in? Was it just for dramatic purposes? Or was there a deeper, more persuasive reason?

Studies have shown that this allusion technique, called Pre-Persuasion or “Priming” in psychology, can be extraordinarily effective in selling an idea. It works by directing the audience's attention in a way that best benefits you. In Robert Cialdini’s book of the same name, he demonstrates that this kind of appeal can be 50-70% more effective at convincing the audience that the idea is true.

Steve’s long introduction was crafted with the goal to allude to ideas early, before ever introducing them. In this way the audience was prepared to accept that this new product as  a natural evolution of Apple’s revolutionary product launches. They were prepared to accept that this combination of three different products was not just a smartphone, but that it was truly something much more.

Together, these two structural hacks will dramatically improve your presentation’s effectiveness. But framing your ideas properly and building the acts in the right order isn’t enough.

You’ll still need a well-designed PowerPoint as an effective backdrop. At SketchDeck, we help clients improve the design of their presentations every single day. It’s our most commonly requested project. Having a professional create your slides for you is highly recommended if you’re conducting a presentation with any kind of dollar value behind it. After all, Steve Jobs certainly didn’t make those slides on his own.

Design tips for creative presentations

Creative presentation ideas and design tips can dramatically improve your messaging impact. It’s not just a nice to have; design is essential. Repetition, alignment, contrast and placement of design elements all work together to create great symbolism that will sell your product.

With this in mind, here are six key design tips for creative presentations:

  1. Boil it down to the most important point.
  2. Pick an appropriate color scheme.
  3. Use high-quality images
  4. Follow data visualization best practices
  5. Stick to consistent slide layouts
  6. Images the reinforce your messaging

1) Boil it down to the most important point.

The most impactful design decision you can make is to cut the text down to just the single most important point.

Not two points. One point.

Think back to the Steve Jobs iPhone presentation. Each of those slides to reinforce a singular part of the presentation. Each of the legacy innovations got one slide with a single word on it — the date of the release. The reveal slide didn’t even have one word. Reduction of text is essential to cutting through and getting your message across. Keep it clear. Keep it simple.

Another example is the TED and TEDX presentations. These viral online videos are famous for their presentation style, and they’ve created a trend of follow-on explanatory videos with gurus discussing the world. They’ve also set the gold standard for single presentations, and each of them follows the law of reducing text on the slide to just a single point.

Violation of this principle is behind some of the absolute worst presentations imaginable. It’s so common to see slides just dripping with text. Many presenters rely on these slides to do the talking for them.

After all, if your entire script is on the projector or screen share, why are you even there? Your goal of clear persuasion is already out of reach if the audience is too focused on what your slide says to listen to you. That doesn’t amplify your point, rather it buries it dead on the spot.

2) Pick an appropriate color scheme

The second best design decision you can make is to pick an appropriate color scheme. Colors are one of the first design elements people recognize, and key to many emotional decisions. Our culture ensures that we associate certain color choices with certain attributes. For example, in Europe and the US, blue is often perceived as trustworthy, black is sexy, while gold invokes wealth.

Packaging designers know this well, which is why there’s often green on products that wish to be seen as good for the environment. People often assume that products which are green physically, are green environmentally Selling healthcare with the goal of generating trust?  Using military green or a blunt combo of red and black probably isn’t the best design choice.

All too often, we  see clients make the mistake of picking colors which don’t align with their points .This is often made under the banner of “brand consistency”. Sticking with brand colors (“on brand”)  is essential, but it is possible to go outside of the brand book to make your point. An expert designer, like the creatives at SketchDeck, can find a color which logically follows from the brand and better underscores your message.

3) Use high-quality images

Audiences love visuals that accentuate and improve upon the narrative of a presenter.. Choosing an image to symbolically represent text that you’ve (hopefully, by now) culled from your presentation slides will be far more impactful.

In today’s digital first, information economy, high-quality, high resolution are essential to make you and your brand stand out. With so many different formats to choose from, it’s important to know where your presentation is going to be seen. An Apple Retina display, for example, needs a resolution 2x that of your average monitors. If you're publishing on LinkedIn's Slideshare or social media on the other hand, that's probably overkill. When in  doubt, ask a graphic designer. They design for formats of all kinds and can provide best practices.

4) Follow data visualization best practices

Today’s business world is complex.

Being a decision maker means aggregating and understanding data from a wide variety of sources. These can be financials, supply chains, or even testing outputs from advanced industrial processes — sometimes all within the same presentation!

To be a clear communicator, you should avoid dumping a data table on a slide. Instead, follow best practices on data visualization.

The data you’re dealing with dictates how you should describe it. Here are a few rules you might follow:

  1. Make sure each chart serves a clear purpose
  2. Each chart should reflect what you have to say
  3. Use design to encourage the eye to
  4. Present as many numbers as possible in a small smace

As far as the best way to handle this “in general”, we couldn’t say it any better than the data visualization master himself, Edward Tufte, “Statistical graphics, just like statistical calculations, are only as good as what goes into them”. Consider the above rules and ask yourself if, perhaps, you even need a chart for this presentation.

This is a nuanced subject upon which many books have been written. Your specific situation will depend on the data you’re dealing with. For further information, check out his seminal book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

5) Stick to common slide layout options

Audiences respond to ideas which look familiar. Even if you’re introducing a concept that’s totally unconventional, presenting the idea in a more ‘traditional’ manner will make it more palatable. An exterior that resonates with your audience’s existing beliefs is one way to make your idea far more persuasive.

This is a commonly recognized design principle referred to as MAYA. That stands for “Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable”. It was coined by Bernard Lowe, an industrial designer whose work is so radically successful that it has become inseparable from  the 1950’s brand of aesthetic.

Confirmed by numerous academic studies, the making your “new idea” seem familiar allows you to sneak in unfamiliar concepts without threatening or belittling your audience’s self-esteem.

The most practical way make this work for your presentation is to stick to common design formats. Everyone expects to see certain types of slides. For a VC pitch, it might be an XY diagram for the competition, or a map of the market opportunity. In a sales setting, it might be the logo proof slide or the three pricing pillars slide.

You’ll need to look at your industry and context to decide what’s best for you.

At SketchDeck, we typically design client template PowerPoints before starting on any of the design execution work. These templates often have no more than ten different layouts within them that we can use for 90% of the design work.

6) Images that reinforce your message

It’s easier than ever to find high-quality photography to use in your presentation. Stock photo websites are ubiquitous, and their images are everywhere. But finding and sourcing these images comes with a cost.

You’ll need to sort through dozens of different photos before finding an an image that matches your need and reinforces the one message you have on your slide. Remember — you only have one opportunity to connect this point back to the image symbolically. If you pick one that’s slightly off-topic, you’re more likely to confuse and distract than to persuade.

To make matters even more difficult, a high-level executive can see dozens of presentations a week. They can recognize many of the most common images immediately as being a stock photo. Overused images will be recognized immediately and greatly reduce your credibility.

On the other hand, a novel image that brings your point home can be a massive improvement. Steve Jobs knew this, which is why he defused the unveiling of the iPhone with a joke image — a rotary phone photoshopped onto a gen one iPod.

Not only did he successfully open a curiosity gap (e.g. “ok, but what is it really?”) but he was able to avoid the question of “do we even need this?” by getting his audience to laugh.

Painting a picture in their heads

Persuasive presentations are difficult to execute. They require an excellent structure and design that comes together around a message the audience will find useful. They have to entertain, add value, and they must convince.

It’s a tall order that’s daunting to even the most seasoned presentation professionals.

Taken together, the above tips provide a starting point for excellent organization of your presentation. However, the final test is to see how it performs. There’s a reason why comedy standups have to work their material over and over again, night after night. Frankly, most of the material is garbage.

The same will likely happen for you. You’re not going to get it right the first time, you’ll have to practice and adjust.

As a final bonus tip, when you’re not sure what’s going wrong — read your audience.

That’s easier said than done, especially when you mid-way through an important pitch. People tend to freeze up and not remember what to do. Fortunately, there is a fix.

To continue on with military comparisons, the US Air Force calls this process OODA. It is a process for decision making, especially when reacting to quickly changing situations. What works for fighter pilots, also works for presentations.

  1. Observe your audience’s
  2. Orient yourself to their reactions.
  3. Decide on an alternate course of presenting
  4. Act on that alternative.

So if you see your presentation failing — OODA.

Best of luck!

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