When you’ve got a story to tell or an idea to sell, you need custom presentations that will win hearts and minds, big-time. Whether presentations are delivered in-person or remotely, they have the power to communicate your message and move people in ways that other media can’t match.
That’s why presentations are one of the most commonly used and most strategic communications tools in business. In a Harris Poll, nearly 70% of respondents said presentations are critical to their success at work. That’s because many businesses have integrated presentations into their corporate communications and company culture—enabled by an entire industry of presentation services, presentation design agencies, and presentation experts that have sprung up to serve them.
What this article covers:
- Start with audience empathy
- Use the right type of custom presentation
- Slides make ideas spreadable
- Consider potential custom presentation tools
- Expert presentation services
- Evaluating a presentation agency or presentation agencies
- Evaluating presentation design agencies or presentation design companies
- Presentation experts
Business presentations are used to achieve a range of goals including raising funding, launching companies, selling products, building relationships, communicating updates and insights, articulating strategies, and sparking change. Each of those goals is different and requires a custom presentation.
If a custom presentation is done well, it can fuel the growth and financial success of a company. In fact, investment fund manager Mark Matson told the New York Times that using the Duarte Method™ for presentations helped his firm with $700 million in new investment funds. Custom presentations can even spark movements that impact the world, like Al Gore’s climate change awareness presentation, which was documented in the Oscar-winning film “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Business presentations provide a platform for companies and thought leaders to educate, inspire, and motivate stakeholders to act. Effective custom presentations empower business communicators to engage their audiences with persuasive content, compelling visuals, and dynamic delivery that results in a thought-provoking, creative and fun experience that sticks in people’s minds
and makes them want to talk about it later with their bosses, co-workers and friends.
Not all custom presentations are the same, though. They come in all shapes and sizes depending on the situation in which you are communicating and the audience you are addressing. Every audience deserves to hear a great presentation, one that is tailored to their specific interests and delivered in the style they prefer.
So a custom presentation is designed to move a particular audience from one way of thinking, feeling, and behaving to another way of thinking, feeling, and behaving by the end. This is what global presentation expert Nancy Duarte describes in her best-selling book, Resonate, as the “audience transformation” and it should be the goal of any effective keynote, talk, pitch, or proposal.
Start with audience empathy
Changing your audience’s beliefs and behaviors relies on understanding them deeply and anticipating all the ways they might resist your idea so you can develop a presentation that caters to their specific care-abouts. The first step to plan a custom presentation is to analyze your audience, which helps you stay organized when preparing content that will resonate with them.
For example, you can use an audience needs map to answer questions about each audience you’re presenting to, which will show you how to adapt the content and format of your presentation to fit their profile.
It may be tempting to save time by re-using a single, generic presentation for a variety of purposes, but savvy audiences will quickly sense that you’ve not done your homework and start to tune out. Worse, a presentation that isn’t purpose-built to persuade a certain audience to take the action you want will end up failing to reach its goal, which is a waste of both the presenter’s and the audience’s time.
So before you start to create a presentation, give some thought to the audience you want to move and plan the appropriate custom presentation type to best meet their needs and achieve your aims.
Use the right type of custom presentation
There are four basic types of custom presentations – formal, canned, casual, and interactive – and each has its own best use.
If you’re speaking to very large audiences, such as when giving an event presentation, think of it like putting on a show that’s highly staged. You’ll need to put lots of effort into making that formal presentation as impactful as it can be so it leaves a positive and lasting impression.
For these high-stakes situations, it’s important to invest time and effort to write and refine your main content using storytelling principles and then develop tailor-made visuals and motion graphics that bring your words to life. But that’s not the end, because then you must spend several more hours on delivery preparation to rehearse your presentation over and over until you reach polished perfection.
Uses for formal presentations include keynotes at an industry conference or customer event, product launches, press announcements, investor or analyst days, corporate presentations, executive briefing center shows, annual kickoff meetings, and other major thought leadership moments. TED-like talks are also carefully crafted and highly rehearsed, though they are usually shorter in length than other types of keynotes.
If expectations are especially high or the audience is globally distributed, you might even choose to do it as a canned presentation that is recorded in advance and edited into a slick video that’s as professional-looking as a TV show.
Nowadays, many marketing teams pre-record big event and meeting presentations because it’s a convenient way to deliver content simultaneously to audiences in multiple time zones, with lower risk of hiccups that can happen with live-streaming.
Sales teams frequently take advantage of canned presentations to pitch ideas to buyers and show the benefits of their products through pre-recorded demos and explainer videos.
Learning and development teams also use them for e-learning modules and training presentations.
Public relations and investor relations teams and the company executives they support use canned presentations to communicate key messages to employees or other stakeholders in a carefully scripted format.
This makes it less likely that messages will be misinterpreted, which is especially important for internal communications, media relations, investor relations, reputation management, public affairs, and crisis communications.
Visuals that are highly sophisticated or cinematic can feel like overkill when you’re addressing very small audiences in an informal setting. That’s when a casual presentation makes more sense.
It’s still written, designed, and rehearsed ahead of time, but the presentation is delivered in a seemingly spontaneous style that makes the audience feel like you’re connecting with them organically. While slides can be used in a casual presentation, you could also use whiteboards or flipcharts to sketch conceptual models, charts, graphs, or diagrams on the fly to appear more authentic and responsive to your audience.
Casual presentations are routinely used for internal communication situations like leading conversations in team meetings, presenting project proposals and providing status updates to executives, or facilitating brainstorming sessions. In a casual presentation, you need to allow more time for interaction with the audience, perhaps getting through your main presentation in the first fifty percent of the meeting time and using the other fifty percent of time for discussion.
Some audiences like to feel as if they are in the driver’s seat instead of letting the speaker dictate the pace. Executives, for instance, need to know their valuable time isn’t being wasted so they often interject questions and reactions throughout a presentation so they can efficiently move ideas to the next step.
To please hands-on audiences, craft an interactive presentation with plenty of built-in moments for feedback and discussion. This custom presentation format is especially effective for sales presentations or investor pitch decks where the speaker’s goal is to engage in dialogue with a decision-maker or group of decision-makers, overcome roadblocks, and guide the group to consensus.
To be most impactful, an interactive presentation should feel like a conversation, where the speaker shares a slide or other visual aid and facilitates discussion around it before moving on to the next topic. This can be accomplished through a modular toolkit of slides that provides presenters with a library of stories, soundbites, and graphics to pull from that will address various questions and objections as they’re raised.
Slides make ideas spreadable
Regardless of the presentation type you choose, think about how you’ll ensure your audience remembers your messages and takes action to move them forward even when you’re not in the room. Visual documents created using presentation software, which Duarte calls Slidedocs®, can be used to summarize key messages from your custom presentation along with supporting details and appendices. Slidedocs package dense content into an easy-to-read, portable format that you send as a pre-read or a leave-behind.
To further boost your presentation reach across large audiences, optimize your custom presentation design to drive more clicks. Important messages should be converted into polished, clever, and eye-catching visuals that grab the audience’s attention and compel them to snap pictures and share them on social media.
It’s worth investing in high-quality presentation design or external design services for key visuals like marketecture diagrams, technical schematics, line graphs, bar charts, pie charts and other data visualizations or infographics that will be seen, shared, and re-shared by thousands or millions of people. Of course, they should also be clear, comprehensible, and accessible so everyone can consume them.
While creating custom presentations for all of these situations will take time and resources, you can streamline the process with a presentation template that includes different types of slides unified by consistent colors, fonts, and text. Event presentations often have a unique theme and presentation design style for that conference or meeting, yet they will still conform to the company brand guidelines for consistency.
An experienced presentation design agency will be able to craft a presentation system with premium templates that work for all your presenting situations and build it in the application you use most whether it’s Google Slides, PowerPoint, or Keynote. They can even design libraries of visual assets that enrich a custom presentation like photos, icons, and editable illustrations that match your brand, unlike generically designed free art you can find online at sites like Storyset.
But in addition to presentation design services, be sure to also ask your presentation agency to give you and your team presentation skills training that explains how to use the presentation template.
Consider potential custom presentation tools
Business presentations can be built using a wide range of tools, from Microsoft PowerPoint and Apple Keynote, to Google Slides, Canva, and Prezi. Deciding on the right application depends largely on the technology stack your company has standardized on for communication. But if your company allows you flexibility in software choices, then select your presentation application based on the functionality that best fits the types of custom presentations you do.
To sort through the strengths and weaknesses of various slide design applications, you could interview leading presentation designers and presentation agencies. But we’ve saved you some time by asking the presentation geeks and slide design experts at Duarte, Inc. to share their insights and tips for getting the most out of the top presentation design software tools.
This full-featured application has been around since 1990, making PowerPoint presentations the most ubiquitous and farthest reaching type of slides in business today.
- PowerPoint is the go-to choice for professional-looking business presentations, both in PC and Mac environments
- Features are very robust, so presenters need to invest time in understanding the app’s capabilities and keep it updated to stay on top of the latest changes
- Templates can be complex but that’s a problem easily solved by working with an agency that’s experienced in business PowerPoint design
Apple Keynote is a well-established yet innovative tool for transforming business presentations from dull to dazzling.
- Exclusively available on the Apple platform, Keynote is best for Mac fans
- Restrained features and a clean interface encourage users to design simple slides
- Originally known for sophisticated animations and transitions that make presentations look like movies
Google Slides – part of the Google Suite – are gaining traction in companies that want a fully cloud-based and low-cost application stack.
- Google Slides is a no-frills choice for users that want a “good enough” presentation authoring tool
- Template functionality is not as robust as in PowerPoint and Keynote, so slide libraries must be leveraged instead to create efficiencies
- Uses the same collaboration capabilities as other Google Suite apps to enable co-creation with team members
With advice from former Apple software evangelist Guy Kawasaki, Canva grew quickly into a general-purpose graphic design platform.
- Canva offers a vast variety of ready-made design templates for many types of deliverables, not just slides
- Templates are customizable but static, with limited animation and motion graphics potential
With some initial funding from TED, Prezi got its start in 2009 and has since grown to over 100 million users globally.
- Prezi’s nonlinear navigation and animations make text and graphics zoom across the screen
- Beloved by teachers who want to bring extra zing to lectures but look out for motion sickness!
- Prezi Video enables weather-report style of delivery that makes virtual presentations feel like TV broadcasts
Expert presentation services
Presentations are an important vehicle for all kinds of corporate communications, but only a small percentage of presentations get the attention and investment required to make them successful. That’s probably because it takes a lot of time to build a good custom presentation that will resonate with a given audience.
But making a truly great presentation that gets results also requires years of experience in public speaking, business storytelling, graphic design, visual communications, communications strategy and more. If you or your team aren’t skilled in those disciplines, consider hiring outside experts who offer presentation services to augment your capabilities and fill your skill gaps.
Presentation design process
The development process used by your presentation agency should encompass a range of presentation design and creative services including:
- Discovery to understand your target audience, company story, and business goals
- Development of novel creative visual concepts and story angles
- Content consulting and coaching advice on how to articulate messages in effective and engaging ways
- Artful design and production of presentation slides as well as custom icons, illustrations, and motion graphics
To get the best return on your investment and ensure consistency across all of your events and meetings, the presentation designers you use should also be skilled at creating premium templates and visual systems that conform to your company’s brand guidelines but still let you customize slides and slide templates for different situations.
It’s also wise to find specialists in presentation skills training who can help your team improve effectiveness and productivity when making and giving presentations. A reputable, experienced presentation company can work alongside you and your team to plan presentations, craft narratives, design slides and templates, and coach and train your speakers to reach their maximum potential.
Services to look for when evaluating presentation agencies include:
- Communications strategy
- Audience analysis
- Message strategy
- Content strategy
- Planning and facilitation
- Content consulting
- Script editing
- Content critiques
- Speaker coaching
- Presentation design
- Creative concepts
- Slide design and production
- Templates and systems
- Icon and illustration libraries
- Video and motion graphics
- Presentation training
- Immersive skill-building workshops
- Self-paced on-demand learning
- In-person or virtual facilitation
- Practice and reinforcement
Evaluating a presentation agency or presentation agencies
As you look for a presentation agency to hire, you’ll want to evaluate them objectively to ensure you’re selecting a partner you can work with compatibly on a range of presentation projects. Consider these criteria as you conduct your research on presentation agencies:
Review their company capabilities
- Do they provide a comprehensive set of presentation design and development services, including communications strategy, content consulting, slide design and production, speaker coaching, and presentation training?
- How many years of experience does the company have working on business presentations?
- Is their company cited by other presentation experts as innovators and thought leaders in the industry?
Not every type of custom presentation requires all of those capabilities, but the more full-service an agency is the better they’ll be able to pivot to serve you in different situations.
Assess their process and methods
- How are custom presentations made by this agency?
- What are the steps in their creative process?
- How long does it take to start a project and to complete it?
- What kind of turnaround time is required?
- Do they use unique methodologies that are based on deep expertise and proven best practices for transforming business presentations?
Ask for consulting team qualifications
- What is their expertise in public speaking, storytelling, graphic design, or communications?
- Do they have relevant degrees or certifications?
- Have they published books, articles, blog posts, videos or webinar presentations that you can access to understand their point of view?
- Do other people recommend them?
View their portfolio of sample presentations
- Which thought leaders or brands have they worked with?
- Can they share a case study of work they have done for a famous company or renowned leader?
- When you look at presentations they have created or case studies they have provided, is the content useful and the design professional?
Understand their service philosophy
- What is the approach they use to create presentations?
- Do they serve customers with empathy and care?
- Can they work within your budget constraints without sacrificing quality?
- What is their company culture like and does it mesh well with your own company’s ways of working?
- Does their style of communication work for you?
The right experts for all of your custom presentation needs will offer a combination of strategy, content consulting, design services, and speaker coaching that will solve your immediate communication needs plus presentation skills training. That will ensure everyone from your executive suite to the product, marketing, or sales team at your company can build the capability to create and deliver better presentations.
Evaluating presentation design agencies or presentation design companies
Presentation design is a very specialized field. Not all graphic designers know how to make a PowerPoint design that’s both good-looking and functional, and even fewer understand how to manipulate the basic features in Google Slides to craft really compelling slide designs. So you want to find a presentation company that has a team who are both experts in the medium and excellent at graphic design.
That said, each custom presentation is unique and will require a different level of slide design. For very high-stakes situations like major industry keynotes or executive briefing center presentations, you will need a sophisticated, custom design that is crafted and refined specifically for your event through a multi-step creative process.
To support other kinds of important meetings or pitches, you still want professional visuals but they can be more easily built using custom templates that make the production less involved. And for internal presentations or everyday communications, you can get by with casual, “do it yourself” visuals that are whipped up by speakers themselves using slide libraries and simple templates.
When evaluating a presentation design company, it’s important to remember that a presentation is not just about the graphics that you see on a slide.
Often people think of presentation design agencies as adding visual sizzle to a presentation or doing quick clean-up work on a slide. But what’s more important than the graphics is the thinking behind the presentation itself. It’s not only about PowerPoint design or Google Slide design; it’s also about having strong communication skills and mastery of business storytelling.
For instance, the presentation experts at Duarte work closely with speakers to craft messages and shape them into a story, then concept and design distinctive visuals that clarify and amplify those key messages. They even coach speakers on how to present with confidence and dynamism.
It’s not enough for the agency to give a good design pitch. Make sure to interview the actual team members that would work with you and ask yourself: do they seem able to understand my field or market well enough to help tell my story visually?
For instance, if you have a highly technical product marketed to a technical buyer, will the design agency be expert enough in communication strategy or content consulting to explain your product in such a way that it will resonate with a particular audience? Electrical engineers, for instance, could care less about a colorful image of a surfer riding a metaphorical “wave” — they want to see technical diagrams of how a product works and graphs that show its superior performance.
Not glamorous, yes, but it is talking their language, and that’s what makes a message land. So make sure their presentation designers can comprehend what you do well enough to help you articulate it clearly with relevant presentation designs.
To further master your ability to make custom presentations, you can learn a lot from experts in the field. Although there are thousands of self-proclaimed experts with books on presentation skills, there are a few presentation experts whose work we admire and we think stand head-and-shoulders above the others, and these experts are all a great place to start if you want to up-level your presentation skills.
His best-selling books, Presentation Zen and The Naked Presenter, inspired a generation of presentation design services providers. As a keynote speaker, Reynolds shows he knows who he’s talking to very well. As Nancy Duarte put it, “Garr is great at customizing his content for every audience… Each was a little bit different based on who was in the audience.”
Former journalist turned coach and writer, Gallo has authored Talk Like TED among other books as well as widely-read articles in Forbes and Inc. He doesn’t offer presentation design services or run a design company, but Duarte says Gallo creates “thoughtful, well-written” content that helps people improve their communications.
Having written five books on visual storytelling, Atkinson advises speakers to stop relying on bullet-heavy slide as a crutch. He and Duarte both share a passion for “thinking outside the box” to create more effective and memorable presentations.
As CEO of a presentation design agency and a speaker himself, Schwertly espouses some of the same techniques for business presentations as Duarte. His playful books like Deck ‘Em and How to be a Presentation God can help round out any library for presenters.
Since co-founding Duarte, Inc. as a design agency in 1988, Nancy Duarte has made it her mission to elevate the communication of brands and thought leaders by showing them how to harness presentations to inform, inspire, and persuade.
Her company has transformed presentations from a reviled medium to an admired and essential part of everyday business communication. Their communications consultants, writers, graphic designers, and coaches craft presentations using the Duarte Method™, a system for empathetic, audience-centric communication that fuses persuasive storytelling, visual thinking, and presentation delivery to shift audience beliefs and behaviors. Duarte firmly believes that when people master those skills they advance in their careers and even win job promotions!
Duarte’s presentation agency creates cinematic keynotes, videos, and motion graphics for high-stakes events and meetings as well as company overviews, sales presentations and pitch decks, templates, and visual systems for global brands and thought leaders. Meanwhile, the company’s training academy helps teams and individuals build presentation skills based on the Duarte Method™ that transform how they communicate ideas, connect with audiences, and collaborate with colleagues for better business results.
Ironically, Duarte’s co-founder wasn’t exactly a great communicator at the start — in fact, she earned a C minus in her college speech class. Yet, after pouring thousands of hours into her craft and documenting what she learned in popular books on presentations and storytelling, Duarte delivered a TED talk that has garnered millions of views and is frequently cited as a must-watch resource for anyone who wants to up-level their presentation skills.