How to Build a Successful Presentation Structure

According to research, 46% of presenters feel that the hardest part of creating a successful presentation is crafting a compelling story.

But what if there was a simple structure to craft a message that was effective every time?

In a TEDx talk that has over two million views, communication expert Nancy Duarte shared the secret to a successful presentation structure. We’re going to expound on Duarte’s concept to help you deliver an exceptional presentation.

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Duarte’s Presentation Structure

In The Secret Structure of Great Talks, Duarte projected the image below. 

Presentation Structure

Image source: Duarte.com

Confused? It may look puzzling upon first glance, but this snake-like shape is actually the secret to a successful presentation. The presentation structure moves back and forth between what is and what could be, ending in a call to action. 

What Is

Your audience needs to understand the current state of your subject in order to grasp why it should be improved. 

Let’s say I’m giving a presentation about how to improve a hamburger. I’d start off by saying what the hamburger currently looks like. It has a patty, bun, and some lettuce. 

That’s a pretty bland hamburger, right? But if the audience didn’t know that the hamburger was tasteless, they wouldn’t see the point in making it better. 

presentation structure

What Could Be

The present should feel undesirable as you explain what could be in the future. A regular burger with a few ingredients is boring, but adding tomatoes, onions, and cheese could drastically improve the taste.

According to Duarte, the gap between what is and what could be should be as big as possible. The presenter should then use the rest of the presentation to bridge the gap.

Back and Forth

Moving back and forth between what is and what could be is a tactic to engage your audience. You’ll draw your listeners in faster as you bridge the gap between the two, rather than presenting the entirety of improvements at once. 

So to continue with the hamburger example, I’ve proposed a tastier burger with tomatoes, onions, and cheese. Now I can address adding condiments such as mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, or aioli. 

After condiments, I present ways to improves the burger, such as freshly ground beef or a seasoned patty. 

See the snake pattern emerging?

How to Build a Successful Presentation Structure Click To Tweet

You get the picture. What is, what could be, what is, what could be. As we traverse between the two, the latter becomes more attractive until we draw the listeners to the final proposal. This is where you state your call to action, your “new bliss”, as Duarte puts it. End with a statement of how much better the audience’s world (or in this case, their hamburger) will be when they adopt your ideas. 

For an example of what this looks like, Duarte maps out the shape of two famous speeches: Steve Jobs’ 2007 iPhone launch speech and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Both speeches replicate the snake-like presentation structure and are still talked about today. 

presentation structure

Your presentation structure is key to delivering an effective message. By going back and forth between what is and what could be, you show the audience the path to a better way.  

Following Duarte’s framework, you’ll be able to draw your listeners in and keep their attention. Remember the snake-like structure and you can impact your audience no matter the topic of your presentation. 

If you’re interested in learning more about good presentations, check out Rubric Tips for Public Speaking

Free Public Speaking Rubric
Sources
Noar. “The Facts on How People Create Presentations Based on Real-World Survey Data.” Presentation Panda.
Duarte. The Secret Structure of Great Talks. TEDxEast.
Duarte. “Structure Your Presentation Like a Story.” Harvard Business Review.

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