Three Rules for Great Presentations

Let’s face it – you want to improve your presentation skills but it’s hard to find time to devote yourself to extended study given all of the other demands of your life and work. So I’m going to give you three simple rules to guide you as you create and deliver your next presentation. 

Why Should I Use Them?

It’s simple, really, and not just because “I said so.”

First, your presentations will be more effective in achieving your primary goal: the audience should learn something. 

Second, these rules are supported by accepted learning and instructional design theories (theories about the way we learn and deliver instruction) and by nearly fifty years of research into how the human mind receives, processes and stores information for later use. 

Third, using this method distinguishes you from other conference presenters still clinging to “traditional” PowerPoint methods–a bonus if you’re in competition for a job.

So, are you ready?

Three Rules for Great Presentations

Three Rules for Great Presentations:

  1. Say the words.
  2. Show the pictures.
  3. Text is for take-away.

That’s it. It’s just that simple. Say the words, show the pictures (AVOIDING text-filled slides–to find out why, keep reading) and have a handout or packet of information for the audience to take away with them.

Say the Words

Say the Words

This means that instead of starting your presentation in PowerPoint, you really should start in Word and write a real, honest-to-goodness document first.  This document will be the source of your spoken words, i.e., your “script.”  Treat this document as you would any other academic paper (or business report), taking the time necessary for a proper analysis of your topic.   

When your document is complete, identify the major points in your paper.  Select the most important three to five points (that’s about the range of ideas you can cover in a 45-60 minute presentation) to serve as an outline.  Fewer points is better than too many points so be sure to scrutinize your choices, eliminating unnecessary ones. You will emphasize and support these points during your spoken remarks with additional evidence, arguments, examples, research results, etc. (which should already be contained in your document).

Show the Pictures

Show the Pictures

Now that you have a script and outline, it’s time to locate some images that will visually reinforce your verbal message. Review your three to five important points and take a moment to brainstorm how you might represent those concepts visually, either through photographs, drawings, or graphs and charts.

Draw out some ideas on paper, then select the ones that best represent the verbal description of the concept.  Locate images (see the Resources page for great free image sources) and insert them into your slides. Use the largest images you can find and shrink them down within PowerPoint–nothing says “I made no effort at all on this presentation” like a poor quality, pixillated photo.

Keep your visuals large (it’s very dramatic to use a photo across the entire slide) and your headlines complete but concise.

Text is for Take-Away

Text is for Take-Away

Text belongs in a handout and NOT on your slides. This is the primary problem with PowerPoint presentations today. DO NOT USE TEXT-FILLED OR BULLETED LIST SLIDES.  Why not? Research has shown that the combination of a presenter speaking and text-filled slides being displayed actually hinders learning.

That’s right, if you give a presentation where you are displaying a text-filled slide and talking at the same time, you are creating giant obstacles for your audience to work around simply to comprehend your message.  Seriously, this type of situation creates “interference” between the two incoming streams of information (the speaker and the slides) because our brains process text in much the same way as we process the sounds of speech. 

When this auditory channel gets overloaded, not all of the information presented is received by the audience member. Don’t believe me?  Next time you attend a presentation similar to the one described in the paragraph above, pay attention to your ease or difficulty in understanding and processing the speaker’s overall message.  If you find it difficult to keep up, try focusing solely on the speaker or solely on the slides (the speaker’s easier) – it might help you better cope with the information flow.

Now, some text is ok.  Most slides should have a headline or title, but if you want your audiences to enjoy your presentations more and to learn more from them, then break your habit of text-filled slides.  If you don’t have an appropriate visual, then just talk, but resist the temptation to use text as visual “filler”–text used in this way only inhibits learning when accompanied by spoken remarks.

Your handout is to be given to the audience preferably at the end of the presentation (more about this in a later post).  You could use your existing document as your handout (if appropriate), or you could create something entirely new with additional resources, references, tips, ideas, etc., depending upon your topic.  Whenever I teach my presentation workshops I usually give my audience a folder with numerous handouts covering various presentation topics. Everybody likes to go home with some “stuff,” even if it’s just helpful handouts.

Your handout is also the place for you to put all of that “nice to know, but not necessary” information that you just will not have time to cover during your live presentation.  This way, you don’t feel the need to stuff your presentation or run through it quickly since you’ve included that great information in the handout.

With handouts, your ultimate goal is to have your audience use them long after your live presentation has ended to continue their exploration of the topic you presented.


So there you have it…three simple rules to great presentations. Evidence-based and simple to implement, these rules will help you create the potential for more meaningful learning of your content and make you look like the confident and competent presenter you know you are! Now get out there and start presenting!

Peace out,



  • In the conclusion, I said “simple” but you do need to know that using this method takes more time than the “traditional” method.  But that’s a good thing!  Great presentations require a lot of preparation and practice time. It’s worth the effort when you know that your audience is leaving your presentation having learned something and feeling that their time was well-spent. 
  • Want a poster to remind you of the rules?  Click the first image in this post, right-click and save the file to your hard drive.  Print it out and stick it up in your office.
  • For a brief introduction to how we process information in our memories and the process of learning, see Chapter 1: “How people learn: Human cognitive architecture and the learning process.” in Presentations for Librarians: A Complete Guide to Creating Effective, Learner-Centred Presentations.
  • Or, go and visit your local library and locate some books and articles on “working memory” or “multimedia learning.” Baddeley and Paivio are two big names in the research on human memory.
  • Photo Credits: Photos are images of PowerPoint slides I use in teaching my presentations workshop.  The images for “Say the Words” and “Show the Pictures” were retrieved from the Microsoft Office Online Clip Art site.  The image for “Text is for take-away” is (c) FocalPoint – and has been licensed for use.

7 responses to “Three Rules for Great Presentations

  1. Pingback: Presenting Data Tables « Presentations for Librarians

  2. Pingback: Recent Quotes Worth Mentioning « Presentations for Librarians

  3. Pingback: Handouts on a Flash Drive « Presentations for Librarians

  4. Pingback: New Options for Non-Linear Presentations « Presentations for Librarians

  5. I read your Blog on non linear presentations. Good stuff. I wanted to know if you knew of a way to simply show 1 image on the projector while the presenter is able to randomly pick the next image?


  6. Hmmm, nothing comes to mind right away. Can you elaborate more about the presentation situation? That might help me find something for you.


  7. I have to say that for the past few of hours i have been hooked by the amazing articles on this blog. Keep up the good work.

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