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The Deck Is a Dialogue: 3 Steps to Conversational Presenting

Adam Somlai-Fischer
Updated Jun 29, 2022

Efforts have been made to adapt one-way communications to the behaviors of today's not-so-one-way audiences. The same goes for meetings.

With its ability to delightfully blur the lines between the professional and personal, it’s no surprise that social media has taken the world and businesses by storm.

The growing number of collaboration tools, from Yammer to Slack, proves that neither the environment nor the type of audience makes a difference. People find more value in speaking to each other than in being talked at. But this trend goes well beyond social media, with efforts to adapt one-way communications to the behaviors of today’s not-so-one-way audiences.

Facebook and LinkedIn opened businesses up to sharing, liking, and receiving comments from the masses, and TV networks have dabbled in broadcasting Twitter feeds alongside their programs.

However, for most companies, socializing in this way isn’t enough to engage meaningfully with customers and prospects. Here’s how you can use a conversational approach to create better meetings, conferences and presentations.

How to use a create a conversational presentation

1. Go from socializing to ‘conversationalizing.’

Take one of the most common one-way events in the professional space: the conference. Imagine the speaker is on stage while a Twitter feed is projected in the background.

While seeing the thoughts of your peers during the talk can be entertaining, these real-time musings can also take away from the speaker’s message, making it less effective.

The real value of a social approach during presentations often surfaces when it’s structured like a conversation, encouraging guided questions, insights and debate. Find a program that allows everyone at the presentation to see comments and questions. This way, people are less likely to fill up the chat with side conversations and things that aren’t relevant to the discussion, and more likely to use the forum for questions or comments about the presentation itself. 

Best presentation tools for conversational presentations

  • Microsoft Teams: This is a virtual presenting tool that allows a presenter to share their screen with the audience. There is a chat function that someone would moderate for any questions or comments posted. To prevent the chat box from getting out of hand, an additional person might need to privately respond to messages not relevant to the presentation.

  • Zoom: This is another virtual meeting and presentation tool with a screen-sharing function. It works essentially the same as Teams. People are able to chat on the side, but there is also a main chat for people attending the presentation that everyone can read, including the presenter.

TipTip: Learn more about both of these options in our full review of Microsoft Teams and our comprehensive Zoom review.

2. Build a nonlinear narrative from the start.

Structuring a presentation like a conversation requires tweaking the thought process at the creation stage.

Instead of assigning messaging points to a linear, paginated timeline, take a visual angle: Creatively plot them across a single space, and allow the audience to explore your ideas in the order they choose. Like with Google Maps, they’ll see the big picture at the outset and decide where and how closely they want to zoom in. By displaying a large, branched narrative, a speaker invites the audience to participate in the presentation from the beginning.

Live observations and feedback can guide the discussion in its most natural direction, as well as allow a speaker to move things around or add points of interest to their presentation before transitioning to a single path of thought.

That’s what’s going on inside your brain. Things are firing in all different directions, and trying to squeeze that into the margins of a linear presentation is a limiting translation.

Whether B2B or B2C, a presentation that invites engagement around an idea while it’s being presented yields something that is meaningful for everyone: a creative visualization that displays spatially and proportionally how ideas interact with one another.

Best presentation tool for building a narrative

  • Prezi: Prezi is a cloud-based software tool that allows you to take your audience on a journey between non-static slides. It can help create a narrative in a nonlinear way that is more about telling a story than presenting a rigid idea.

3. Hold the audience’s attention with conversation.

Professionals have adopted this approach for a variety of reasons, including how much it sets them apart from other presenters, how interesting they personally think it looks and, most notably, out of necessity.

A passive audience in an age when interactivity is built into everything around us is an increasingly unrealistic expectation, particularly when attention spans have been shortened by so much immediate gratification.

For example, a study found that students remembered far more of what they’d heard at the beginning of a lecture than at the end. By the time the talk was halfway over, they’d mostly zoned out.

Our attention spans have always been temperamental, so to inject interactivity throughout a one-way event is to command attention in a world where attention is difficult to maintain.

FYIFYI: A presentation is at its best when it’s built and displayed in a way that encourages conversation and can evolve in the moment.

The conversational approach helps kickstart a process that speaks to the way we naturally learn and communicate, and can in turn make us more effective in our professional lives. But more than that, it creates room for imagination where it counts the most. Ultimately, it’s when we’re allowed to be creative that we enjoy the work we do, and the more we like what we’re doing, the better we do it.

Best presentation tool for holding attention

  • PowerPoint Live: PowerPoint Live is a feature of Microsoft Teams that focuses on building presentations. It allows you to share your presentation while still seeing everyone in the audience on camera. You can read faces and body language, and see if someone is raising their hand to ask a question. Knowing the presenter can see them is an incentive for the audience to stay attentive throughout the presentation. 

Virtual presenting best practices

“One big problem with virtual presenting is that viewers are more likely to lose focus than when they are in the room,” said James Robinson, marketing manager at presentation design agency Buffalo 7. “This means less engagement with your message. You must create an experience that is more interesting, blocking out the audience’s physical environment.” Here are some strategies you can employ. 

Focus on storytelling.

Robinson’s tips for creating powerful presentations start with giving your talk a clear beginning, middle and end; having one idea per slide; and allowing your words room to breathe and sink in. 

“Position your audience as the hero of their own story, and you as their mentor, guiding them to the inevitable solution,” Robinson said. “Avoid using lots of heavy data. People are unlikely to take all that information on and will likely switch off.”

Pick the right design.

Robinson said to design for the small screen because, unlike with in-person presentations, most people will be viewing it on a laptop or even a phone.

“Create slides that are bold, eye-catching, and don’t contain too much information,” he said. “Ideally, each slide should focus on one big point [or] concept, with most info coming from the speaker.”

Animation is one powerful tool to prevent loss of interest. “Animation flips the mind into entertainment mode, so naturally, attention and retention go way up,” Robinson said. “Animate to engage the audience, lead them in a certain direction and add flavor to the design.”

Set a good environment.

Setting yourself up for success before a virtual presentation is sometimes just as important as the presentation itself. If the presenter is comfortable and confident, the presentation will be better and more engaging. Robinson suggested asking yourself the following questions before giving a presentation so you can keep your viewers focused:

  • Can they see me clearly?
  • Is the image quality crisp and clear?
  • Am I in frame?
  • Is it bright enough?
  • Is the background distracting?
  • Is the sound quality good enough?
  • Am I speaking loudly enough?
  • Is there an echo?
  • Is the connection seamless?
  • Can they see my slides?
  • Are my slides and my speech moving at the same pace?
  • Are my key messages going through?
  • Is any of my design or animation distracting from the story?

Encourage engagement in your presentation by asking and answering questions.

“Ask the audience questions and leave time for silent answers to rhetorical questions,” Robinson said. “Whether you stop and wait for an answer or you litter your script with rhetorical questions, the very act of asking a question makes the brain wake up and try to answer it.” 

Robinson said that it’s important to pause and ask for questions in the chat box throughout the presentation as well.

“The likelihood is people won’t remember a question they had in the first chapter by the time you ask for questions at the end. Let people ask questions in the chat box throughout; then you can work through them whenever is the right time for you.”

Jennifer Post contributed to the writing and reporting in this article.

Image Credit:

Weedezign / Getty Images

Adam Somlai-Fischer
Adam Somlai-Fischer is the co-founder and principal artist of Prezi, the cloud-based presentation platform. He is an architect by education who earned international reputation through his Interaction designer works. Adam is interested in the cultural qualities of new technologies and, to explore them, he blends spaces, technologies and interactivity. He was the creative mind behind Prezi, the zoomable presentation platform, which, unlike slides, offers an eternal canvas to show relationships between the big picture and fine details, putting ideas in context. It is not only a more engaging way to give a presentation, but it also helps people be more effective and persuasive.