Structure is paramount. And a few other tips on presentation design

My two cents on how to build a deck of slides for in person presentations (as opposed to decks meant to be sent and read).

[This is a follow up to my previous post: Love your decks]

My two cents on how to build a deck of slides for in person presentations (as opposed to decks meant to be sent and read).

In the typical case of responding to a RFP/RFI, or similar requests where you are supposed to send over a response and subsequently present (if you made the cut), I'd advice to have two documents: the one to be sent can be longer, more detailed, as it's use is supposedly to be read - this deck ideally will also be used as a support during the in person presentation; the one to be presented (the focus of this post) should be shorter, to the point, supporting your's presenting to an audience.

Please note: the following is a broad framework that should be used as a guide rather than a blank template to fill.

Keep it Short, Stupid! (KISS)*

First rule first.

While there are conflicting, and often unsubstantiated studies on people attention span (no, you don't have the attention span of a goldfish), it's empirically proven that we are under constant attack from multiple (digital) stimuli and we struggle to keep a solid focus on a single task for very long.

People can follow a 2 hours long movie at cinemas, and I guess this has lots to do with the fact you can't use your mobile phone, but even the most fanatic TV show fan is probably getting distracted from their phone multiple times when at home (or they are watching while doing something else).

Combining multiple sources on this, it's fair to assume your presentation's audience attention span is between 5 and 10 minutes.

Let's be optimistic and say you have 10 minutes of your audience full attention, and considering you'll spend between 1 and 2 minutes per slide (depending on the topic and how fast you talk), this gives you between 3 and 10 slides to make your point.

This means you need to:

  • keep the presentation short
  • get straight to the point
  • keep your audience engaged


There's no magic number here, despite the fact you'll probably find sources on the web giving you an exact number.

My recommendation is not to exceed the 15 slides, or 30 minutes in length (conscious of the fact that for 20' will be you talking to the wind).

Welcome everybody

Let's start by minimising the erosion of those precious 10' of your audience attention, or how not to get in the way of saying what you have to say to respond/offer/sell and win over your audience.

Don't start by telling the story of your company, including listing all your offices around the world, or how many people it's made of, or showing a wallpaper of logos of you clients (spoiler alert: we all share the same clients).

If you are presenting to somebody, they know who you are. You are not adding any value by telling them something they can find by just googling you/your company. Also, you probably already told them all that stuff in the deck you sent over.

On the other hand, Speakers introduction should be your first slide (after the cover).

If you are attending a presentation with a group of people, only have the ones presenting on that slide - this should also serve you as a tool to identify who should attend; simple rule: not presenting, not attending.

In cases where there's more than one presenter, the most effective way is to structure your story where you have one main presenter guiding and taking over the introductory, summary, and closing parts, with the others presenters stepping in on specific topics (e.g. a technology, a product, a project phase, etc.)

On this slide, for every presenter you'll have:

  • Full Name (don't abbreviate your first name)
  • Role (your main title and role, don't list all ancillary positions)
  • Photo (where you look the way you actually look like at the time of presenting)

The main presenter should introduce all the people in this slide; it should previously been agreed on what to say about each of the people on it, this will guarantee consistency and will help reinforcing speakers' entitlement to have a spot (that is, describe them for what they bring, not what they achieved in their careers).

So far our presentation has:

  • Cover (on the background before the start of the presentation; the audience we'll know the main topic, and who you are without having to ask/check) - slide 0
  • Speakers Introduction - slide 1

Validation is on the agenda

[see Love your decks for the index/agenda disambiguation]

The agenda is an extremely powerful tool, and most likely you are not using it at its full potential.

About 3 minutes have passed, and with the agenda you have an excellent opportunity to:

  • introduce your main point/solution/offer
  • articulate the path get you to the main point/solution/offer
  • list the supporting arguments
  • indicate what's more important and what's less
  • anticipate what happens next
  • inform on how long it will take (the presentation)
  • set the rules of the game (the presentation session rules, that is)

And most importantly, you will ask for validation and you will be able to act accordingly to that response.

The agenda will be a list of titles, each title one section of your presentation, each section a different topic, each topic its own aim - don't put in the agenda anything preceding it (apart from the Speakers Introduction).

If you'll keep the presentation short, having the time length of every single point won't make much sense, every single point will just be a couple of minutes, as an example:

This is the solution ________________________________ 5'
We think this is the right solution because x _______ 3'
This is supporting argument a  ______________________ 2'
Supporting data a  __________________________________ 2'
This is supporting argument b  ______________________ 1'
Supporting data b ___________________________________ 1'
This is supporting argument c  ______________________ 1'
Supporting data c  __________________________________ 1'
What happens now ____________________________________ 5' 

A better way to do it, is to group items together:

This is the solution ________________________________ 8'
This is supporting argument a  ______________________ 4'
These are supporting arguments b and c ______________ 4'
What happens now ____________________________________ 5' 

It feels like a breath of fresh air, doesn't it?

Let's have a look at what's happening here.

You are introducing the main point/your solution (This is the solution, in our example above) - the title should be significantly explicit and clear.

Also, you are providing the reasoning behind how you got there (argument a above, same titling considerations as before), and listing the main data supporting it (supporting data, ibidem).

The indication of the time spent on each point gives us their importance, reinforcing the order they are presented, in the example above the solution weight two times the supporting arguments.

What happens now anticipate how we expect to follow up.

At this point the audience knows:

  • what's the point we are making
  • why we are making it
  • what we'll do next
  • how long our presentation will be

Finally you set the rules and ask for an initial validation by directly engaging with your audience:

Any question before we proceed?

If there are doubts, or something doesn't look quite right, or there's a feeling of something missing, your audience will probably tell you - it's an opportunity for you to align your presentation to your audience (for instance by shifting the weight from one supporting argument to another). Keep this exchange short, don't get into long explanations.

What you have now is:

  • Cover - slide 0
  • Speakers Introduction - slide 1
  • Agenda - slide 2

At this point you have used about 5-7 minutes. You haven't yet made your point, still you anticipated quite a few things. You are building climax.

But, you are also running out of time - now it's really time to say what you have to say.

How did we get to the agenda we just saw?

Where to start from

Don't start from the tool you're going to use to build your deliverables (in this case, the software to make the slides), something I'd advise for presentations as well as any other design activity you're facing. Better said, don't start from any digital tool at all.

Don't delegate the thinking to the tool [3]

You should start with pen and paper, or whiteboard and marker, and map out the key elements of what you want to talk about.

Write few, short, paragraphs describing the challenge, highlight keywords defining it, cluster those keywords and make connections: first you collect the dots, then you connect them. [1]

SJ at the whiteboard | alpb 2023 (AI generated) There are many studies supporting the case for handwriting as a powerful tool for learning and (better) thinking [2]


Once you defined the points you want to make, or the solution you are describing, or the response you are offering, it's time to draft the structure. Do this by staying as lean as possible, sticking to the backbone of your narrative.

The dot-dash method is fast - has to be fast - it's aim is to list the major point of your story and the relevant supporting elements for those points.

● Main point 1
- supporting element a
- supporting element b
- supporting element c

● Main point 2
- supporting element a
- supporting element b
- supporting element c

● Main point 3
- supporting element a
- supporting element b
- supporting element c

● Main point N
- supporting element a
- supporting element b
- supporting element c

This is still not yet what we have in the agenda, there's still some work to be done.

Enter the pyramid

The pyramid is Barbara Minto's pyramid, a framework for clear writing and clear thinking, and it looks like this:

The Minto Pyramid

I'm not going to get too much into the details for the Minto pyramid, let's be lean and get to the point with it (plenty of online resources to know more about it).

I'm quoting Barbara Minto:

“(...) there were only three logical rules to obey, the point above has to be a summary of those below, because it is derived from them. You can’t derive an idea from a grouping unless the ideas in the grouping are logically the same, and in logical order.” [4]

So, from the list we generated with the dot-dash method, we should take out our main point (e.g. the solution) and the main reason why. These two points should be a clear and summarised articulation of our main argument. Two slides, we will talk about for eight minutes. This is the top of our pyramid.

Once we finish presenting these two slides (the Solution, and Why we think this is the solution) about 15 minutes are gone. Most of your audience focus is now behind you.

The rest of your presentation will be mainly about specific lateral points, you might expect to have some attention from specific elements of the audience depending on the topic.

These are the supporting arguments and supporting data of the pyramid, again this will be a work of consolidation and clustering of the points you previously generated with the dot-dash method.

As per the above diagram, you should position your supporting points and figures in a sequential order, ideally moving from the major/more relevant one down to the least also considering any possible dependency or relation among them.

If you think about it, what are you doing at this point is Q&A. This is really the role of these supporting arguments (this is the reason why, the infamous big capital letters slide with Q&A on it is a big no).

Once done with those, 23 minutes have passed.

You now have now 5 minutes in your agenda for the Next Step part.

This last slide is where you need to retake your audience full attention, also use this slide to address any concerns that might have been raised during your presentation (something that is not necessarily on the slide, unless you are so good that you are presenting from a cloud service and you had somebody adding those points on the last slide while you were presenting).

Use the Next Step slide to:

  • tell when you'll get back to them with any further documentation responding to any request for clarification
  • tell what you'll start from (should you have to) and when you'll do it
  • list the people or things you need to move forward
  • provide contact details or directions to documents/material

All of the above has to have a date (starting on, finishing by, required by, etc.), and an owner (better a person than a business unit).

That's it, 28 minutes.

p.s. all of the above is no substitute for knowing your audience, rehearsing your presentation, and having something interesting to say in the first place.


I'm borrowing the metaphor from Steve Jobs, with a slight different meaning to make it useful for the context; for more see: Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford Commencement Address


Also worth reading:


Or the tool will take your place, at some point - and unfortunately, designers are masters at delegating to their tools.


Barbara Minto: “MECE: I invented it, so I get to say how to pronounce it”
Barbara looks back at a pioneering career that began at the Firm.

* I know, KISS usually stands for Keep it Simple, Stupid

** Ideally one master presenter, introducing others on specific matters (the Subject Matter Experts, so to speak)

[first published on LinkedIn on June 2nd 2023]