Presenting like a pro: The comprehensive guide

Phoebe Perelman

Written by

Phoebe Perelman

Drum roll please … presenting … a blog about presenting. Hold your applause. I’m about to present you with a jumping-off point into the big wide world of presentations.

What are the must-have presentation skills? What’s the difference between a pitch and a keynote? What are some fundamental presentation design principles? And how can you become a better presenter? This blog aims to answer these questions and more. It’s also rich with resources that allow you to double-click on any topic of your choice. So, without further ado, let’s get this presentation party started.


What is presenting?

Presenting has a myriad of comparable meanings. From the fields of medicine to law to entertainment, presenting can be defined as:

  • Appearing formally before other people
  • Representing (someone or something) to others in a particular way
  • Showing or offering (something) for others to scrutinize or consider
  • Giving someone (a gift or award) in a formal or ceremonial way

The common thread is this: presenting is about communicating or demonstrating something to others. Today we’re not talking about a specific field. We’re talking about presenting verbal and visual content, whether that be an internal recommendation, a product launch, or a board update.

You can present in front of 2 people or 200 people: it’s still presenting, nonetheless. And if you’re ever in a position to present, there are specific presentation skills that will serve you (and your message) well.

What are presentation skills?

Duarte is the original presentation company. We’ve spent more than 30 years creating cinematic presentations that move audiences. We’ve been so successful making presentations that we started teaching clients en masse how to improve their presentation skills. We start by focusing on the 4 foundational presentation skills you cannot go without:

1. Empathy

Spoiler alert: when it comes to presenting, the presenter is not the most important person in the room. The audience is. And in order to win over those critical audience members, you must empathize with them. Think deeply about who the audience is, what they need to be successful, how they might be stuck, and how they consume information. Only then can you develop content that resonates with them.

2. Story

Presentations aren’t inherently engaging. In fact, many presenters just spew out information with no compelling structure. Or they read from their slides robotically. Or maybe they provide an overwhelming amount of content with no context. But the presenters that grip us, engage us, and leave us forever changed – well, they tell a story. Stories are the secret presentation sauce. In a way, stories are just as essential for survival and success today as they were thousands of years ago. Whether you’ve woven a full-circle story into your presentation from beginning to end, or you incorporate customer stories and personal anecdotes – stories are necessary to evoke emotion and convey memorable meaning.

3. Visuals

Visuals help reinforce your message and make ideas stick. Although not always used, presenters often create slide decks on presentation software (like PowerPoint, Keynote, or Google Slides) to complement their oral presentations. Or, in place of slides, presenters may also use visual aids like videos or demonstrations throughout a presentation.

4. Delivery

How you say things matters just as much as your message itself. No matter how well-crafted your content, if you can’t deliver it with confidence and conviction, no one will hear – nevertheless act – upon your ideas. And in that case, what’s the point of presenting in the first place?! When it comes to presenting information in front of others, delivery is central to your success. Mastering public speaking is no easy feat, but it is possible, with self-awareness, coaching, and practice.




Keynote speeches

Some presentations are higher stakes than others, like keynote speeches. And the presentation skills needed for these can vary slightly. Keynote speeches typically set a tone and central theme for an event, conference, or ceremony. Whether an event is in-person or virtual, small or large, keynote speeches hold a lot of weight.

At Duarte’s annual internal event, ShopWeek, we get to hear a keynote speech every year. These speeches rally us around a common goal. Last year we heard from a professional mountain climber. The year before that, we heard from an astronaut! (I guess we have a thing for courageous adventurers.) But anyone can deliver a keynote speech as long as they have a unique or exciting insight to offer.

Depending on the occasion, keynote speeches aren’t always accompanied by visuals, but they usually incorporate some type of visual aid. Video clips, product demonstrations, and presentation slides are all powerful ways to complement a keynote speech – as long as they’re executed for the (literal and figurative) spotlight.

Speaking of spotlights … it’s important to remember that in-person keynote speeches come with a myriad of in-person event elements. Lights! Cameras! Microphones! Stages! Confidence monitors! Action! So if you’ve never given a production-level presentation, it’s important to familiarize yourself with these elements in advance so you can prepare for all the extra commotion.




The main stage can be nerve-racking. But it offers an unmatched opportunity to:

  • Demonstrate thought leadership
  • Increase brand loyalty
  • And initiate change

If you want to nail it, consider working with presentation experts to refine your content, visuals, and presence.

Nancy Duarte’s TEDtalk: The secret structure of great talks

We help some of the biggest global brands create keynote content for massive industry events (like Dreamforce) using the Duarte Method. The Duarte Method relies on a proven presentation structure that Nancy Duarte uncovered when studying the commonalities of the greatest presentations, stories, and speeches of all time. This structure emulates the captivating rise and fall of myths and movies by infusing contrast. Contrast between:

  • What is and what could be
  • Sacrifices and rewards
  • Pros and cons
  • Roadblocks and opportunities

Contrast (or conflict) keeps listeners engaged. It is what inches you closer to the edge of your seat during that awe-inspiring keynote speech. And just like all presentation skills, contrast can be taught.




Do you think you need presentation skills training?

Whether you’re delivering a keynote presentation on a mainstage for the first time, or you’re a seasoned presenter with a high-stakes talk on the horizon, everyone can benefit from presentation skills training.

Although your level of expertise will influence which type of presentation training best suits you, there is always room for improvement. After all, just because you’ve given a great talk in the past doesn’t mean your next presentation will be equally as successful (no offense). Presentation training helps ensure that you can ace your delivery consistently, by uncovering tools and techniques to coach yourself for every unique presentation opportunity that arises.

There are a few different presentation training formats:

To determine which type of training is right for you, consider the speaking engagement, your experience, your professional development goals, and your preferred learning style.

Additionally, identify whether you need help with presentation content, presentation delivery, or presentation design.


Captivate black button


What is presentation design?

Presentation design is exactly as it sounds: it involves the design and development of presentation slides or visual aids.

And to be honest, everyone who gives presentations could use the help of a presentation designer. I mean, have you ever looked at a slide and thought to yourself …”I have no idea what I’m looking at.” Be honest. How many presentations have you sat through where every slide consisted of boring bulleted lists? Or maybe you wished you had a magnifying glass to try and decipher what some teeny tiny text said? I know I have. And my head hurts just thinking about it.

Presentation slides have incredible potential to make a verbal message stick. But more often than not, presentation slides detract from the speaker and the message because they’re not designed with the audience in mind.

That’s why we train professionals in the art of slide design. Here are three presentation design principles that we live by at Duarte:

1. Design is not decoration.

Everything on your presentation slide should serve a purpose. And that purpose should always link back to your message. There’s no need to waste precious presentation real-estate with decorative icons or superfluous details. If it’s not adding meaning to your message, you don’t need it. When in doubt, leave it out.

2. Stick to one idea per slide.

Crowded slides crammed with lots of content are not effective. If your audience can’t comprehend what’s on your slide in a few seconds, you’ll lose them. Presentation slides should support your presentation, not distract from it. So unless you want your audience to read your slides instead of listening to your talk, limit yourself to one main idea per slide and keep it as simple as possible.

3. Audience-centric slides are accessible slides.

Everyone digests information differently. As an empathy-first organization, we encourage you to look at every presentation slide through an audience-centric lens and create visuals that are accessible to everyone. Because when you design with accessibility, you open the doors to a wider audience and create a more equitable and empathetic world. To ensure accessibility, review the AA accessibility standards. You can also download our recent webinar about visual accessibility 101.

Oh, and if you’re designing slides specifically for virtual presentations, there are just a few additional slide design components to consider.

But overall, if you keep it simple, keep it aligned with your message, and keep your audience in mind, you’ll be off to a good start.

Honing in on data visualization

We can’t talk about presentation design without considering data visualization. After all, it’s rare we can ask anyone to make a decision without providing data to support our claim.

No matter what type of presentation you’re delivering, meaningful metrics are a must. Yet, another common presentation design pitfall we see is the dreaded “data dump.” That’s when someone includes way too much data on their presentation slides. Or, provides data with zero context or meaning behind it.

Datapoints alone don’t move audiences. They need a storyteller.

And data storytelling isn’t easy. If you’ve ever asked yourself “how do I display data the right way in presentations?” – you’re not alone. Presenting data is tricky because different rules apply to different contexts. That means, first and foremost, you’ve got to know your audience. Only then can you determine and extract the key messages they need to hear from a deluge of data.

Once you’ve identified what data matters most to your audience, you need to visualize that data in a way that’s both consumable and memorable. To do so:

  • Choose charts that everyone can understand
  • Write clear chart titles
  • Make descriptive observations using adjectives
  • Use color, labels, or highlights to draw attention to specific data points

If you want more guidance on how to synthesize your findings, craft recommendations, organize your thinking, and visualize meaning, consider enrolling in a data visualization training course like Duarte DataStory®.




DataStory black button


Pitch presentations

Sales pitches, investor decks, start-up overviews – oh my! These are all examples of pitch presentations – and they’re presentations you need to get right if you want to get paid. Companies often come to us confused. They think they’ve included everything an investor or customer needs to know, but their pitch is not performing. There are a few common reasons for this:

1. They’re using a one-size-fits-all deck.

Every sales conversation must be customized to the stakeholder you’re speaking to. As author and management consultant Tom Peters says, “one size never fits all. One size fits one. Period.” Hashtag agreed. Modular sales decks and sales pitch templates sound good on paper, but are difficult to put into practice. Check out these sales enablement tips to learn how to build situational sales presentations for your team.

2. They aren’t highlighting anything unique.

If you don’t have anything unique to offer, your pitch won’t stand out no matter how charismatic your delivery or how beautiful your branding. Consider this statement: “We build incredible, unique, and thoughtful experiences that allow you to delight, surprise, and wow people.”

Despite the word unique being included, does that sound like a unique value proposition to you? I can’t even tell what this company sells based on that claim. It could be software, or it could be ice cream delivery. The world may never know. And that is a problem.

3. They don’t incorporate a story.

Facts and figures are helpful sales tools, don’t get me wrong. But nothing sells like stories do. After all, our feelings drive our decisions 70% of the time according to Gallup. Data proves a point, but stories influence people to act. When you intertwine analytical and emotional content, you’ve got a powerful pitch that appeals to both ethos and pathos.

4. They start with a single problem and make the rest of their pitch all sunshine and rainbows.

Our brains need contrast to stay engaged. If you vomit all product benefits for the last 80% of your pitch, it makes it harder to think critically about the necessary components that must be considered to move a decision forward. Not to mention, that listeners stop believing you. Instead, your audience needs vicissitude, or a back and forth, between problem one and solution one. Problem two and solution two. And so on. This requires brainstorming every possible objection or resistance point your audience might have, and weaving them throughout your pitch.

Now, how do you ensure your entire salesforce avoids these missteps? That’s where a sales enablement deck comes in.

A sales enablement deck equips reps with every sales resource they need to win: case studies, key metrics, audience personas, and expected objections, all wrapped in an overarching story, topic, or category.

But as stated, one size will never fit all. It just won’t! So refrain from relying on one sales enablement deck for everything. The more concise and tailored your sales enablement decks are, the easier it will be for your reps to use them, and the more likely you’ll hear that sales bell ring.

And if you want help crafting (or delivering) sales enablement training, that is one of the many presentation services Duarte offers.


Presentation services

As the O.G. presentation company turned communications consultants and trainers, we can help you (and your team) with every and any aspect of presentation development.

We offer training and custom agency services for presentation delivery and presentation creation.

Presentation coaching

Need executive coaching for an upcoming panel discussion? We’ve got coaches for that.

Need to help a group of sales reps up-level their delivery skills? We’ve got a course for that.

Presentation storytelling

Need a fresh sales pitch written for a high-stakes audience? We’ve got writers for that.

Need cinematic presentation slides for a keynote event? We’ve got designers for that.

Or, need to train your entire staff in the art of business storytelling? We’ve got a course for that too.

Presentation skills are critical for our careers and our companies. Arm your team and your organization with the skills and resources needed to present their best.


Captivate orange button


Duarte logo