A CIO’s Checklist for Better Presentations

July 24, 2020

Contributor: Laura Starita

Audiences today expect presenters to entertain and engage at every turn. CIOs should study and practice effective communication techniques to get buy-in for their ideas.

CIOs who want to brand IT, and themselves, as strategic partners need to communicate a compelling vision of how technology can drive revenue and transform business. CIOs need strong ideas — and strong presentation skills to win people over.

“Superior communication skills are essential for success,” says Ed Gabrys, Senior Director Analyst, Gartner. “Yet many people are willing to ad lib or get by with a ‘good enough’ presentation. Audiences expect more, or they stop listening. In a recent survey, close to 95% of people admit to multitasking during meetings.”

“  It’s no longer enough for a presentation to be clear and accurate. It has to engage and resonate”

“Good enough” clearly won’t cut it for CIOs. The proliferation of TED stages around the world has raised expectations for presenters everywhere, in every context. It’s no longer enough for a presentation to be clear and accurate. It has to engage and resonate. If it doesn’t, audience members can simply pull out that personal entertainment device they carry in their pocket and find something that will.

To hold the attention of your audience, leverage these communication best practices.


Whether a presentation lasts 10, 20 or 40 minutes, audience members at some point will be tempted to tune out or multitask by checking their phones or jotting an item on their to-do lists. You can help override these distractions with interaction. 

Moments of interaction encourage your audience to reset their attention on you, whether the audience includes two people or 200. Interaction shifts people out of a mode of passive listening and into a mode of reaction and response. Consider the following ways to interact, from simple to more elaborate:

  • Pause. Pauses alert listeners that something important has just happened or is about to occur. They invite people to stop and think about the message.
  • Ask questions. Questions convert a presentation from a lecture into a conversation. Rhetorical questions like “Have you ever seen…” invite people to reflect on their own experience. Open-ended questions like “Take a moment to think about…” encourage ideation. With large audiences, pose questions and pause to let people reflect. With small, intimate groups, questions stimulate group interaction.
  • Give assignments. It’s a classic presenter’s trick to ask for a show of hands to indicate common experiences, backgrounds, etc. Modern presenters can ask audience members to take an online poll and share the results before the end of the presentation, or pose a dilemma for neighbors to discuss for a few minutes.

Vary your words and your tone, speed and gestures

Presenters spend a lot of time choosing their words — as they should. You should also spend as much or more time on thoughtful delivery, including attention to speed, inflection and physical gestures. Together, the words and how they’re delivered add up to communicate meaning. 

As an example, consider how the meaning behind a simple word like “okay” changes depending on how the teenager in your life delivers it. “Okay!” said crisply with a slight upward lilt at the end communicates excitement and enthusiasm, as in “Okay, you can drive me and my friends to the movies.” Or “okay” can be dour and evasive when delivered with a dragged out “ay” and downward inflection, as in, “Okaaay, I’ll empty the dishwasher.”

You project the same variations in meaning with your tone and inflection when you present, so think about your core message and what you want to communicate. Is your subject serious or inspiring, humorous or emotional? Map your intention and use these techniques to emphasize them:

  • Make eye contact. Look at members of your audience while you speak, as you do when having a conversation. Maintain eye contact with one person for two to five seconds before moving to another. If stage lights or distance make it hard to establish real eye contact, use focal points instead. Learn your material well enough that you don’t need flash cards or notes on a computer screen, all of which put distance between you and the audience.
  • Use physical gestures. Choreograph physical moves to correspond with the words and emotions in your presentation. When conveying excitement or enthusiasm, integrate big gestures and animated facial expressions. When communicating serious or grave information, stand still and keep your gestures small. Regardless of context, make physical movements intentional and avoid absent-minded “ticks” like flicks of your hair or glances at your watch.
  • Alter your tempo, volume and emphasis. Variation encourages audience members to pay attention, so take pains to change your tone, speed and inflection to match your meaning. When telling a story, speed up during moments when your characters are moving quickly and slow down when they stop to think or weigh consequences. Stress the most important word by raising your volume or saying it more slowly than average.

Read more: Build a Winning Investor Pitch Presentation

Use visuals to complement — or don’t use them at all

Great presentations don’t require visuals. Well-chosen words and effective delivery can be all you need to enthrall an audience.

Speakers who want visuals should use them to complement or emphasize their message, not distract from it. One rule of thumb is to remember that visuals are just that: Visual. They can be photographic images, graphics, video clips, animation, data representation or other media. Words as part of slides should be kept to a minimum — audience members can either listen to you or read, and you don’t want to give them any reason to tune you out.

For visual best practices, remember to:

  • Get the facts right. When sharing research or data, make sure you understand the method and findings and communicate them accurately. Visualize data in charts (not tables) for clearer meaning.
  • Marry facts with insights. Don’t stop with facts. Share why the audience should care about a fact or finding and provide ideas or examples of what they should do about it.
  • Provide visual aids. Help people grasp difficult ideas by framing them in words and visuals.
  • Explore video and audio. Video and audio are rare additions to verbal presentations, yet they’re an effective way to reset audience attention. Video lets an audience witness the same places or events you describe with words. Audio can create ambience or provide validating evidence from an expert.

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