Health Literacy

What Makes Presentations Good?

On Call Magazine, July/August 2006

By Helen Osborne, M.Ed., OTR/L
President of Health Literacy Consulting

As a healthcare professional, you’ve no doubt participated in enough professional and community-based conferences to know that not all presentations are equally interesting. Kristina Anderson, a freelance writer and editor in Albuquerque, New Mexico, describes her disappointment at a recent dinner meeting where the keynote speaker was a recognized expert in communication. Eager to pick up valuable tips she could use to enhance her own communication skills, she came away thinking the speaker lacked the ability to employ any of the principles she was trying to teach. Her content was too basic for the audience, and each of her slides too complex, containing far more words than Anderson wanted to, or could possibly, read.

Anderson’s experience might have been different had Jeanne McGee, a communications consultant from Vancouver, Washington, been the speaker. When McGee makes a presentation, she’s conscientious about starting from what her audience already knows and building from there. And when she uses technology as part of her presentation, she goes beyond slides containing just bulleted text to use visual aids and audio clips.

Both Anderson and McGee are experts on how to get the most out of presentations, whether you are an audience member or a speaker, and recently discussed with me ways to do just that.

What Audience Members Can Do

Before you register for a conference, it helps to do some “homework.” Anderson says this includes reading not only general information about the conference but also brief write-ups about concurrent sessions and speakers. This helps her plan what sessions to take part in and decide if she needs to gather additional information before attending. If her research leaves her with questions, she will contact the conference organizer or a particular speaker to learn more about what to expect.

Since almost all presentations are intended to be educational, Anderson suggests thinking like a student and participating in ways you know help you learn. For some, this may simply be listening to the speaker. For others it may be reading slides, writing notes, or following along with handouts. Few people can learn in all these ways at the same time, but making a conscious effort to employ the techniques that work best will help ensure you come away with the information you are seeking.

Another important concept is to speak up when meetings don’t meet your needs. Anderson is no longer shy about speaking up when presenters fail to communicate well. While attending a community meeting, Anderson noticed the speaker was speaking too long and also that other audience members looked bored. Rather than just sit in silence, Anderson quietly went to the meeting organizer, who then signaled the speaker to wind up his presentation.

Meeting organizers really do want to know what you think about speakers and sessions. So they want feedback from attendees. Anderson takes this responsibility seriously and gives honest feedback on conference-evaluation forms. Beyond just checking ratings boxes, Anderson often adds comments or suggestions for the organizer, speaker, or both.

What You Can Do as a Presenter

The first key to effective presentations is to be audience-centered. “It’s important to present information your audience wants to hear, not what you think they want to hear,” Anderson says. One way to know what audiences want is to listen to what they say. Anderson often leads roundtable discussions, and to keep them audience-centered, she uses feedback from prior sessions to plan upcoming ones, building the agenda around what prior participants indicate they found valuable and what they say they want to know more about.

Meaningful handouts are another way to stay audience-centered. McGee urges speakers to do more than simply copy presentation slides. The kinds of handouts she recommends are designed to highlight key points, add detail or statistics, and provide the speaker’s contact information. These handouts, she points out, can serve as valuable resources that audience members can use long after a presentation is over.

Slides should enhance, not distract from, your presentation. In too many presentations, speakers simply read bulleted text from slides they’ve created using software such as PowerPoint. Besides boring an audience, slides like these add a cognitive burden since audience members feel they must choose whether to listen or to read. While acknowledging their usefulness to speakers in preparing a presentation, McGee sees no reason to show these slides to the audience. “Rather than having the slide show drive your talk, it’s you who should drive your talk, and the slides should be an enhancement,” McGee says. And enhancement comes from using memorable slides. Here are some pointers for creating slides your audience is likely to remember.

  • Use principles of good design. Slides should be interesting and easy to see. This means including no more than two to three bullet points per slide, creating slides that employ a high contrast between lettering and background, and being consistent in the use of fonts, color schemes, and bullet points throughout your presentation.
  • Combine images with words. Graphic designs, photographs, clip art, and cartoons are excellent ways to illustrate concepts and add humor. At times, McGee combines an image with a few words. For instance, she may use a quotation inside a “callout” or “thought bubble” to make it look like someone is talking.
  • Use images that add texture or depth to your topic. When McGee talks about multiculturalism, she might insert a scanned image of fabrics reflecting the cultural heritage she is discussing. This way, audiences get a visual sense of what the culture entails through the fabric’s patterns and colors.
  • Emphasize the familiar with photos. Another way to make slides memorable is by inserting photos the audience can relate to. Audience members are often delighted when they see photos of familiar settings or situations.
  • Manipulate clip art to make it more relevant. While clip-art collections may not exactly match your needs, McGee finds it helpful (and relatively easy) to recolor, crop, resize, or otherwise adapt clip art.
  • Add audio. In addition to talking and showing slides, McGee sometimes adds sound clips from MP3 files. When presenting about doctor-patient communication, for example, McGee might include audio clips from focus-group testing. Multimedia presentations like these are not only entertaining and engaging but also highly effective ways to help audience members learn.

Finally, when using slides, let the screen go blank from time to time. “You don’t need to show something all the time,” says McGee. “You should be the one telling the story, not the slides.” You can help the audience stay focused on you by inserting black slides (to make the screen look blank) when there are no visuals for them to see.

How to Find Out More

Kristina Anderson, of EasyRead Copywriting LLC in Albuquerque, New Mexico, can be reached at (505) 345-3258 or

Jeanne McGee, of McGee & Evers Consulting Inc. in Vancouver, Washington, is author of several books, including the forthcoming Making Written Material Clear and Effective, to be published by theCenters for Medicare & Medicaid Services, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She can be reached at or (360) 574-4744.

A Goodman’s Web site has links to many communications resources including the booklet Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes.

Article reprinted with permission from On Call magazine and published by a division of Boston Globe Media.