Give a great presentation and you're more likely to get promoted, sell products, win customers, engage teams, attract investors, and gain visibility.

In other words, presentations are important. But how do you build one that'll work?

Based on my 20 years of research on persuasion, nine books on communication skills, and countless interviews with billionaires and CEOs who are considered great public speakers, here are seven presentation ideas that will give you a competitive advantage when you're talking about any topic, in any field:

1. Build the story before the slides.

Award-winning film directors begin by storyboarding--writing, sketching, and drawing each scene. Before you open your presentation tool of choice (PowerPoint, Google slides, Prezi, Apple Keynote), spend time crafting the presentation's story arc. Slides aren't stories; slides complement the story. 

A presentation arc contains a backstory. Describe the world in which your customer does business or how your product idea came about. It contains a hero--typically, your customer--and a villain, an obstacle the hero must overcome. Finally, it contains a resolution: a happy ending when your idea solves the customer's problem. 

2. Set the main theme early and often.

A presentation isn't a novel. Saving your conclusion for the end can make listeners expend too much cognitive energy wondering where you're headed.

Will your idea save them money? Make them money? Make their lives easier? Tell them early and often.

I once spent time working with a sales and marketing team at Cisco Systems. We were developing a message to help its salespeople sell a powerful new server.

We researched our audience of IT professionals. The new product would mean less downtime, faster problem resolutions, and faster implementation for them. Making their lives simpler was a theme the customer could easily relate to, and we built the entire presentation around it.

3. Eliminate bullet points entirely.

Steve Jobs never used bullet points. Neither does Apple's current CEO, Tim Cook. Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Tesla CEO Elon Musk don't use them either.

TED Talks also don't allow bullet points on slides. As TED's Chris Anderson wrote in his book, "Those classic PowerPoint slide decks with a headline followed by multiple bullet points of long phrases are the surest single way to lose an audience's attention altogether."

The human brain doesn't pay attention to boring things. Bullet points aren't nearly as interesting as pictures. 

4. Use more photos than text.

Neuroscience has a well-established rule: Pictures are more powerful than text. If your audience hears an idea delivered verbally, they'll recall about 10 percent of the content. If they hear the information and see a picture, they'll retain 65 percent of the content.

Try to follow the 10-40 rule, which I developed after talking to the designers who worked on Steve Jobs' presentations. In the first 10 slides of a presentation, don't write more than 40 words on the slides--total.

It's a tough exercise, and worth it because you have to focus on crafting a story in pictures--rather than filling slides with random text and no structure. You're not eliminating text entirely. You're simply getting your audience to pay attention.

5. Reset your presentation every ten minutes.

According to peer-reviewed studies, given a presentation of medium interest (not too boring, not too exciting), people will lose interest after ten minutes. We get bored easily!

Don't worry. There are ways of re-engaging your audience when their interest begins to wane:

  • Tell a story that drives home the theme of the presentation.
  • Ask questions to get your audience involved.
  • Show a product or conduct a demo.
  • Invite a second speaker to deliver the next section of the presentation.

6. Build in wow moments. 

Steve Jobs would often end presentations with "one more thing." The surprise was scripted in advance and well-rehearsed.

Jobs was a showman. His presentations were like performances and, like great shows, they had twists or shockers. I call this the "wow moment." It's what people will remember long after the presentation is over.

It must be unexpected. Bill Gates once unleashed mosquitoes in the auditorium during a TED talk on how malaria is spread, and it's all people talked about for the rest of the conference.

Everyone expected slides from Bill Gates. They didn't expect live insects. 

7. Practice more than ever.

I teach an annual class of real estate developers in a highly selective executive education course at Harvard University. Those who practice their final presentations stand out. They're less likely to stumble on their words, make stronger eye contact and are more confident.

For really important presentations, rehearse the entire deck from start to finish at least 10 times. I've found that it makes a huge difference. Twenty is even better. 

You can have the greatest idea in the world, but if you cannot present your idea in way that captures the imagination, it won't get the visibility it deserves. For entrepreneurs and business leaders, the ability to deliver an awe-inspiring presentation is a competitive advantage.

Published on: Jul 23, 2018