Presentation structure: Why it’s smarter to put your conclusion in your opening

maze4 A long time ago I attended a presentation on ostrich farming. It was pleasantly interesting because I love animals but I didn’t really get the point – after all I wasn’t planning on being an ostrich farmer. At the end of the presentation the presenter said “And that’s why you should invest in ostrich farming.” If I had known that up front I would have listened to the presentation in an entirely different way. The presentation structure didn’t work for me.

It seems natural to structure your presentation with the conclusion at the end of your presentation and some articles on presentation structure advise this. But most of the time (exceptions below), it’s more effective to tell your audience your conclusion near the beginning of your presentation. Here’s why:

1. It gives your audience the big picture

In Brain Rules, John Medina argues that we learn and remember best when we:

Start with the key ideas and, in a hierarchical fashion, form the details around these larger notions.

This is because we remember things best by forming mental models or schema. So if you provide your audience with a hierarchical framework starting with your conclusion they will understand and remember better.

2. It enables people to make decisions

Decision-makers want to hear your recommendation upfront. They don’t have the time to be taken on a mystery tour. Managers who engage Effective Speaking to run courses for their staff often tell us ‘I want to know immediately what they’re telling me.” Once they have your recommendation they are then ready to assess your arguments.

3. It allows for repetition

When you establish your conclusion at the beginning of your presentation, you can then weave it throughout the presentation, showing how each point that you cover relates and supports it.

4. It holds people’s attention

This may seem counterintuitive. After all why should they listen if they already know the conclusion? However, as presentation design agency m62 argue:

By presenting the main arguments analytically [conclusion first] you create intrigue in the audience, increasing your audience’s attention.

Showing facts and figures to support an eventual conclusion often lowers the concentration levels of the audience prompting a ‘What’s the point of this?’ mind set.

Good reasons to put your conclusion in your closing

There are some situations where it’s effective to leave your conclusion till the end of your presentation.

1. Create mystery

If you can structure your presentation by posing, and then unravelling a puzzle you can have the audience eating out of your hands. Malcolm Gladwell is a master at this both in his books and in his presentations. You could use it effectively in a keynote presentation (as Gladwell does) or in a teaching/training environment as an introduction to a larger topic. This does require some skill to avoid people tuning out if they can’t follow you. For most presenters it will work best to use this strategy for a segment of your talk – rather than the whole talk.

2. Create ownership

In a training environment, you can set up an exercise which enables people to come to their own conclusions. Debrief the exercise by asking participants what they learnt from it. This does require skillful design of the exercise (so that participants learn from it what you want them to learn) and skillful facilitation to draw out their learnings. Done well it’s a powerful method of creating ownership of the learning.

Bad reasons to leave your conclusion till the end

You may be tempted to leave your conclusion till the end for not so good reasons:

1. You’re concerned that people will stop paying attention once they know your conclusion

As I argued above, this is rarely the case. People are more likely to tune out when they don’t have the big picture.

2.You’re concerned that your audience might disagree with your conclusion

If you have to deliver bad news you may feel tempted to leave the bad news till the end. This is rarely a good idea. A classic example: a representative of a New Zealand government agency made a presentation to a group of commercial retailers about changes which were going to take place to their commercial area. He described how it was going to be revamped and made beautiful and attract a lot more foot traffic. He closed with this statement ‘” And that’s why your businesses will have to be shut down for six months.” You can bet they were furious.

What do you think? When do you put your conclusion in the opening? When do you leave your conclusion to the closing?

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