Dan Roam’s Top 4 Secrets for Creating Extraordinary Presentations

Irvin Akopov

Bad presentations – we’ve all seen them. Over-ridden with bullet points full of industry-speak. A hodge-podge of extraneous content. No structure and certainly no focus. They are the very thing everyone loathes. No matter how hard you try, your audience won’t follow-through with your proposal. And worse, reputations are tarnished – sometimes irreparably damaged – for the brand, presenter, and anyone else involved with bringing about the opportunity to spread your message.

What makes these presentations lackluster? For one thing, it’s not the lack of data. Rather, it’s a complete disconnect between the presenter and audience. You may assume that your audience understands what every acronym means and how numbers, facts, and figures are related to the topic. However, that is far from the reality of what everyone in the room is thinking.

From “meh” to inspirational

Your audience doesn’t care about jargon, statistics, and 40 slides of charts. What they want is to be entertained, enchanted, and inspired. They crave stories that they would be proud to share with their peers.

While this may sound like a tall order to fill, it’s easier than you think. In his white paper “Visual Storytelling in the Digital Age,” international, five-time bestselling author Dan Roam explains that our brains have already figured out what works and what doesn’t when it comes to what we see. The trick is tapping into the connection between the human eye and mind with these four tips from Roam.

Tip #1: Use visuals (your audience’s brains prefer them)

Every 13 milliseconds, the human eye turns an image into signals sent to the brain before the next image appears, while part of the brain continues to process those images longer than that. Because of the speed and continuity of this eye-to-brain relationship, most picture processing is precognitive.

If you had to stop and think about everything you were seeing, you would have been dead long ago, destroyed by any one of a million hazards long before you ever saw it coming. Thankfully, that didn’t happen, and you can thank precognitive visual processing for that. (Dan Roam)

Every graph or chart has precognitive visual attributes that require no high-level processing to see and understand. Characteristics include the slide’s orientation, length, and width as well as line intersections, colors, shapes, size of each component, and position of those shapes and objects on the page or screen.

By preloading as much valuable information as possible in this setting, your audience can see your data and use higher-level thinking to generate insight and engage in discussion. Bar charts, time series, pie charts, and 2×2 quadrants are great examples of visualizations that take advantage of precognitive processing.

Tip #2: Keep it simple

Once you have a visual that captivates audience mindshare, let each essential visual element carry the weight of your message. Roam advises, “When introducing the essentials of an idea, don’t pretty up your visualization with any extraneous distractions.”

For example, a bar chart should be nothing more than a bar chart, where the height of each bar has significant meaning. If it’s a map, let it be a map featuring two-dimensional objects that reflect relative positions.

Tip #3: Be creative to go beyond presenting standard charts

Just because you should keep your visuals simple, it doesn’t mean that you can’t think out of the box and tailor them. However, such customization does require some restraint and discipline.

“You don’t need to create fantastically elaborate visuals or add shiny 3D effects to attract interest. Instead, combine as many precognitive attributes as needed (and not one more) and let the near-instant insight your viewer experiences be the attraction,” says Roam.

Tip #4: Tell a thorough – yet engaging – story

At the end of the day, a good visualization is not one that is just eye-appealing and full data and insights. It must tell the whole narrative. More important, it must provide context and show how it relates to the audience.

You may have a great collection of individual bits of visual information, and may have great insights, but until they are woven together in a visual narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, they very likely won’t cohere in the mind of your audience – at least not in the way you hope. (Dan Roam)

9-2-6-pictureEvery story should cover these fundamental questions:

  • Who and what is involved?
  • How many people, organizations, or things are involved?
  • Where is each person, entity, or object located?
  • When are these events happening?
  • How do these elements impact each other and the audience?
  • Why should your audience care?

Once you bring together of all this information and combine it with straightforward and creative visuals, your audience will be able to capture insights, internalize and act on them, and deliver real change.

Learn the importance of visual storytelling for business and how to do it effectively. Read Dan Roam’s white paper Visual Storytelling in the Digital Age.”


Irvin Akopov

About Irvin Akopov

Irvin Akopov is a senior marketing manager for SAP, leading digital marketing programs, demand generation and content strategy. He regularly contributes to editorial thought leadership on the topics of analytics, visualization and data storytelling.