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How to make a presentation outline: a step-by-step guide

PostsStrategy & planning
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

April 07, 2021

Whether you’re building a house, baking a cake, or writing an essay — having all the necessary pieces in place before you begin will make the task much easier.

It may seem counterproductive to spend time sorting things out when you’re in a rush… After all, why spend time organizing when you could dive straight in? But the fact is, the opposite is true: Planning saves time, and the same goes for creating a business presentation. Start with a presentation outline.

A presentation outline is a bare-bones version of your talk. It should take the general direction of your pitch, plus summaries of your key points. Its purpose is to help you shape your thinking, organize your thoughts, and make sure your material is presented logically.

In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at what a presentation outline is, how storytelling can help engage your audience, and how to create a flawless outline of your own. Let’s get stuck in.

What’s the purpose of your presentation?

This is the foundation on which you will build your whole presentation — so make sure you know the answer to this question. A good starting point is to think about the overall purpose. There are six possible purposes your presentation might have:

  • Educate
  • Inform
  • Persuade
  • Inspire action
  • Inspire or motivate
  • Entertain

In a business setting, it’ll usually be ‘to inform,’ along with one or two others. If you’re there to talk about quarterly results, then you’ll want to inform and motivate. If you’re a business coach, your goals will likely be to inspire, motivate, and entertain.

Once you’ve worked this out, you’ll be one step closer to working out the purpose of your pitch. Here are some questions to help you find an answer to this question:

  • What do I want people to take away from my presentation?
  • How will what I talk about help others in the room?
  • What do I want people to do after my meeting?

Note down your ideas and start creating a topline summary of your presentation purpose. Summarize it into one or two sentences, then put that on your first slide. You can change it later, but this is a good starting point.

Create a story arc for your presentation

As humans, we love a good story. We’ve been doing it since, well, forever. The earliest cave paintings helped the painters and those who saw the paintings make sense of the world.

Interesting things happen when you start telling a story. Your brain’s auditory cortex (aka the bit that helps you listen) switches on. This helps you imagine the activities being described. Meanwhile, the frontal and parietal cortices are fired up, which helps us emotionally engage with what’s being said.

How Story Telling Affects the Brain

Stories have been, and will always be, a powerful tool for bringing people together. Great stories persuade and inform; the best stories inspire and stay with us. But we don’t often see this happening in the boardroom, where graphs and quarterly results preside.

Stats and numbers suck the life out of a presentation. We think these details will speak for themselves. But… they don’t because, well… they’re boring, and they make us switch off. If you want to inspire your audience, you need to weave those stats into a story. But where do you begin, and how do you start?

Storytelling isn’t something only a few select people are good at. Anyone can master the art with a little practice. It doesn’t even require heaps of creativity because the truth is, stories are formulaic, and once you’ve got the formula down, the rest runs on autopilot.

Let’s look at how to build your notes and ideas into a compelling story using one of the formulas below.

1.Fact and Story

Mixing storytelling with facts works in a kind of mutually supportive cycle. Facts add substance to the story; the story adds interest to the facts.

In this structure, you weave the two together and move back and forth between the two.

  • Start with a ‘what if’ question. For example, if you were pitching a vacuum cleaner, your initial sales pitch might be ‘what if you didn’t have to lose suction?’
  • From here, work in facts that illustrate the way things currently are. To continue with our example, it might be current stats on traditional vacuums losing suction. Keep alternating facts with fiction throughout the body of your presentation.
  • End on a high note that makes the listeners feel like they learned something and want to move to action because of it. For example, to invest in your new product, or to sponsor your new app.

2. The hero’s journey

From Odysseus to Chihiro, adventure stories typically feature a hero who goes on a journey fraught with peril and learns a vital lesson at the end of it. It’s a formula employed by thousands of writers — and you can draw from it to add some drama to your presentation.

This structure works really well for inspirational personal stories, or tales about a company from its humble beginnings to the success it is today.

  • Begin somewhere neutral. The situation is neither ideal nor unbearable.
  • Introduce a challenge — one that needs to be solved.
  • Present a worsening situation. The problem is being addressed, but things are still getting worse.
  • Talk about rock bottom. The situation seems impossible; there is apparently no way forward and all seems lost. Until…
  • Talk about a new discovery that offers hope.
  • Armed with your new abilities, you can tackle the issue head-on.
  • Talk about resolving the problem, but instead of returning to the way things were before, the hero (you) discovers an even better way of living.
  • Finish with a lesson, which you can share to inspire your audience.

3. The Pitch

The ‘pitch’ style of presentation is commonly used by salespeople. The goal is to show how a product or idea can help an individual overcome a hurdle toward a positive outcome. The story should be relatable, so the audience can picture themselves in the situation and, therefore, benefitting from the solution.

  • Start with a summary of the way things are in a way that’s easy to relate to.
  • Introduce the problem or hurdle that you need to solve. Make it relatable to further help your audience put themselves in the situation.
  • The solution: give your audience a glimpse into a possible solution.
  • The fork in the road: Give your audience a couple of options for solving the problem. Offer an average option first, then follow up with a better one.
  • Close: Choose the better option and explain why that’s the best one (and only real suitable choice).
  • Finish up by telling the audience exactly how to solve the problem, step by step.
  • But that’s not all: Before you finish, talk about extra benefits that extend beyond simply solving the problem. Finish on an uplifting high.

4. The explanation

This presentation format is for when you want to teach your audience something — whether that’s a process, a new skill, or a way to overcome a problem. It has similarities with the fact and story structure, insomuch as facts should weave into the story.

  • Explain how things are at the moment, what the goal looks like, and how you plan to get there. You can even start with a story to add emotional interest from the get-go.
  • Take your first step on the journey toward the final destination.
  • Add more steps that build on this.
  • Take a moment to recap on the points you’ve covered so far while tying them into the main point. This will help your audience visualize the ground you’ve covered and see where you’re heading.
  • Add the finishing pieces to the puzzle and lead your audience to the end.
  • By the end of your journey, your audience should feel as though they’ve learned something new.

5. The Opportunity

A close relative of the pitch, this three-part structure swaps a hurdle for an opportunity. Here, you want to show your audience that a problem they thought they had actually has an easy fix.

  • Start with the situation as it is now.
  • Next, add a ‘but’ — this could be a small hiccup that stops things from being as good as they could be. For example, our chocolate pudding company is doing really well. But we could be doing better if we changed supplier.
  • Talk about the opportunity, with as many facts and stats as possible to make it feel achievable and real.
  • Add a conclusion.
  • Explain why the product or service meets the challenges raised. Add more stats and facts to support your point.

How to plan your presentation

Now you’ve worked out your structure, it’s time to start building your presentation, pulling in all your points and forming them into a story.

Storyboarding is the best way to do this. Directors use storyboards to map out their films scene-by-scene — you’re going to use it to map out your presentation, slide-by-slide.

Toy Story Storyboard

(Don’t worry, you can do stick people and squiggles if drawing isn’t your strong point.) Image Source

The trick here is to use broad strokes without adding too much detail. Make it too wordy and you’ll lose your top-level view, which is important for assessing the arc of your story. Ideally, have one or two sentences on each slide summarizing what each one will address.

You can do this with pen and paper, but when it comes to final drafts and editing, it’s a good idea to move your drawings over to a digital format. It looks far neater, and it means that if you need to change something, it’s as simple as deleting or editing a cell or slide rather than you having to start over.

Once you’ve got your rough storyboard more or less ready, it’s time to start building your presentation.

Your presentation outline

Using a presentation template will be a big help here. First, choose your template — then start adding pre-made slides according to your storyboard. For those who didn’t plan, this can be a bit of a nightmare that usually ends up with you shuffling slides around indefinitely. For those who planned, it’s simply a matter of putting all your hard work in place, then spicing it up with pictures, video, and audio.

Top Tip: If your slides are there to support your spoken words, try not to make them too wordy. Talking too much will distract your audience, whose attention will be split between what’s on screen and your voice. Instead, opt for images and video. If you’re sharing your presentation slides without presenting them, keep your communication simple and succinct. A wall of text is never engaging.

Finally, rehearse your presentation. According to experts, 10 is the magic number when it comes to practicing speeches. The more you practice, the better it’ll flow, the easier it’ll be for your listeners to get sucked into your story. And when it comes to persuading, inspiring, informing, or selling — having a captive and engaged audience is half the battle.



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