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

by Olivia Mitchell

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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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Dan Cybulskie June 22, 2010 at 3:25 am

Great post! Do you think the urge to leave the conclusion til the end is because people tend to approach, and plan for, presentations using the same methodology as essays and documentation?

To answer you questions: I really hadn’t thought about it. I agree with what you’ve said though, so you can bet I’ll be putting more thought into ‘conclusion placement’ from now on.

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Olivia Mitchell June 22, 2010 at 7:16 am

Hi Dan
Yes, we’re trained at school to do things that way.
However, in the corporate workplaces I’ve worked I was trained to put the recommendation (conclusion) first…
Go well with your presentation when you try out, putting your conclusion near the beginning.
Olivia

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Denis Francois Gravel June 22, 2010 at 3:28 am

Hi Olivia,

Good advice. It is very effective to start with the conclusion when it is surprising or chocking for the audience. They will want to know “Where that conclusion comes from.” If you start your conference saying something like: two years from now, we won’t need firemen anymore in Los Angeles, people will listen to know why.

Thanks for your post

Denis Francois Gravel

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Olivia Mitchell June 22, 2010 at 7:19 am

Hi Denis
You’ve given a great example.

However, putting your conclusion in your opening works even when your conclusion is not particularly shocking or surprising to your audience. I recommend that the conclusion is expressed in one clear and succinct sentence (which I call the Key Message). The Key Message should be relevant to the audience and add value in some way – but not necessarily shock or surprise.
Olivia

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Denis Francois Gravel June 23, 2010 at 12:26 am

Hi Olivia,

I Totally agree. I wasn’t specific enough in my first comment.

Denis François

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Claudio Perrone June 22, 2010 at 7:34 am

A lot of incredibly dull presentations diligently start with a main point (your “conclusion”), develop it throughout the session, and finally end up with a summary.
The focus there is clarity. But there is a huge problem. This “logical” structure does not engage the audience at emotional level. That’s why speakers often sound “preachy”. They are the experts, they have a truth and they are more than happy to shovel their data into our throats. No, there must be something better than that.
Is putting the conclusion at the end a better approach then?
Well, the speaker you mentioned put the conclusion at the end and clearly failed. My guess is that he did not “lead” the audience there, he only “pointed” them there.

Brain Rules also mentions that audience attention typically drops after 10 minutes, and gives the advice of using, for example, anecdotes.

So, what’s my approach? Simple. I start with a problem(!) and tell the audience a story. Rather than a logical outline, I use a dramatic outline (problem/development – typically consisting on a series of try and fail -/resolution)
The story becomes a mere device to package all the data and information that I want to provide. You see, I (as a speaker) don’t not play the role of the expert anymore. I become a travel companion that brings the audience in a journey of discovery.
Denis Francois Gravel gave an excellent example of what I would normally call a “hook”. You get your attention with a strong opening or title. In that case, the “conclusion” is strong because it is unexpected and, likely, opinionated. “Invest in ostrich farming” is clearly not as good, isn’t it? :-)
Like in a movie, however, a hook grabs your attention at the beginning, but it is just not sufficient to keep your audience engaged for the whole presentation (see the 10 minutes “rule” above).

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Olivia Mitchell June 22, 2010 at 9:18 pm

Hi Claudio
You raise some interesting points. I would make this distinction: the engagement level of the presentation is not necessarily related to the placement of the conclusion. A dull boring presentation can start or end with the conclusion and so can an engaging one.

I do like your description of the role you play in your presentations as the travel companion. What you describe seems to be similar to the Gladwell approach of taking your audience on a journey with you.

Olivia

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Claudio Perrone June 22, 2010 at 10:18 pm

Olivia, let me clarify.
Here we are specifically talking about structure and how a structure supports a presentation. You can be engaging despite the structure and you can be engaging despite the dreaded bullet points on slides. The point being is that the choice of structure may heavily influence your results and objectives (clarity vs. emotional engagement).

The dramatic structure I use (Problem/development 1 2 3/resolution) is designed to preserve the tension until the end. Let me give you a practical example.
“I was a talented software developer, I though I was invincible. Unitl one day… I faced an impossible project. Everyone was against me. What would you do? This is what I tried first”
You see? Now I have a character, desire, obstacles. I give the audience experience (you can start with a “what if” scenario is the story is fictional)

The first time I wrote this presentation, I said:
“…I faced an impossible project. Amazingly, it succeeded. Maybe this is why”…and so on.
In the latter example I made a little but important mistake. I resolved the implicit dramatic question (“will he succeed?”) too early.

By the way, since I noticed you asked for examples of presentations structured around stories (in another post), here is a link to a presentation I did 3 weeks ago which talks about storytelling techniques, I think you may like it ;-) : http://www.agilesensei.com/blog/articles/2010/06/17/crafting-outstanding-presentations/

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Olivia Mitchell June 23, 2010 at 7:15 am

Hi Claudio

Thank you for the example that you’ve added. I should add a new category to the reasons for leaving the conclusion till the end “Create tension” because that is different to “Create mystery”.

I haven’t had time to look at your presentation slides as I’m off to run a course, but looking forward to having a browse later on.

Olivia

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TJ Goan June 22, 2010 at 7:37 am

A very well reasoned piece Olivia!

My one point of disagreement comes with your case against putting the conclusion at the end when “You’re concerned that your audience might disagree with your conclusion”

A presentation in which you are delivering bad news certainly calls for getting it out early to avoid the appearance of sandbagging. It is true that the longer you withhold bad news the more the audience will feel you haven’t dealt honestly with them.

However, if you are presenting a proposal or trying to change minds, I find that it is often better to prepare the groundwork first. If there is a chance that the audience will not fully appreciate the importance of the problem (to them), I would think you need to build that case first. I may be getting this wrong, but I think I recall one of your newsletters talking about getting the audience in touch with the pain of the problem (not taking it for granted). This comes first, no?

More important is the case where the audience may be negatively predisposed to your proposal. If the audience, for instance, feels threatened by your proposal then presenting your conclusions first may cause them to throw up mental barriers to your arguments. To reiterate, this is not to be confused with delivering bad news. Rather, I am referring to situations where the audience may be brought to your way of thinking if you build your argument incrementally.

Thoughts?

TJ

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Olivia Mitchell June 22, 2010 at 9:37 pm

Hi TJ

Hmm… thinking.

I don’t think there’s one rule which applies in all situations – and it may well be that we’ve had different experiences which have led us to see things differently.

My particular experience relates to local government – when a local official was presenting a proposal to the public it was rarely the first the audience had heard about it. Similarly when it came to presenting new proposals to staff, it was rarely my experience that staff didn’t know something about the proposal before the presentation. In both cases there were often rumours floating about and it was helpful to accurately state the proposal near the beginning of the presentation.

Yes, I have written a newsletter where I talk of getting people in touch with the pain of a problem. This can come just after stating the proposal. I would state the proposal and then lead into a discussion of the problem by saying: “Here’s why we have to do this…”

But to reiterate, my views may simply be a product of my experience. I’ve simply not come across a situation where stating the conclusion early on has caused the argument not to succeed. They may well throw up mental barriers – but you can then deal with those barriers during the body of your presentation. There is a risk that if you leave the conclusion till the end – that despite your careful building of the argument – people still throw up mental barriers, and then you don’t have an opportunity to deal with them.

Thank you for your comments – you’ve caused me to think about this more deeply.
Olivia

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Zach Robbins June 23, 2010 at 7:28 am

Olivia,

Good points here. I think it is generally the best approach to include your conclusion in your intro. I wrote a blog post on packaging your talk in this way here: http://blog.speakerrate.com/post/681885350/tip-packaging-your-talk-say-it-3-times

In addition to your reasoning, you can still “create mystery” by having your conclusion in your intro but include a “continuous element” such as a story or analogy. I once gave a presentation about organ donation. I introduced the topic with a story of my good friend who needed a heart transplant. I leave the story halfway, even though the audience feels that I may have actually finished the story. In the end, I come back to the story and mention that my friend received his heart trasplant and is only alive today because of that one person’s decision. It’ll have your audience eating out of your hand, like you said, but without leaving out your conclusion.

Good stuff.

-Zach

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Olivia Mitchell June 23, 2010 at 7:42 pm

Hi Zach
That’s a great example of using the same story to introduce and conclude your talk. It’s a great technique.
Thanks, Olivia

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javier July 1, 2010 at 8:23 pm

Olivia, I enjoyed the post. It is a very good advice for very general situations. I use the same strategy to the documents that I send to managers and is much more effective to leave the conclusions for the final. So I’m sure that they will read and get more attention to the rest of the document. Congratulations for the post and the blog, it has given me much to my presentations

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Olivia Mitchell July 1, 2010 at 8:45 pm

Hi Javier and welcome to my blog – glad you’re finding it useful for your presentations.
Olivia

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Bruce Gabrielle October 30, 2010 at 9:49 am

Hi Olivia – thanks for surfacing an important point about presentation structure and for allowing for some lively discussion.

In my workshops with business managers I teach them to lead with the conclusion and then unpack the data that supports that conclusion. This is based on personal experience as well as writers like Barbara Minto, John Medina and others. Here’s a further explanation of this principle: http://www.speakingppt.com/1-answer-first/

The exception is when you expect the audience to disagree with your conclusion. In that case, putting it first may cause debate before you even have a chance to develop the rest of your argument. An example: I produced a report for a company that believed software piracy was their biggest challenge with one customer segment. But this was based on misinterpeting some key data. In meetings when I tried to correct people, there was a strong emotional resistance to hearing my counter-argument. So in my presentation I started with “Piracy: what does the data say?”. People were more willing to assess the data when it didn’t challenge their preconceived notions.

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Olivia Mitchell November 2, 2010 at 8:17 am

Hi Bruce
You give a very good example of when it is wise to leave your conclusion till the end.

My caveat would be to only do this when you have good reason (not just an unfounded assumption) to predict that an audience will resist to the point of shutting off.

In other situations, starting with your conclusion will surface some disagreements but this won’t be fatal to your case. Rather surfacing the disagreements allows you to be address them in a straightforward manner. In sales, this is the idea that it’s good for the customer to raise objections, so that you can address them.
Olivia

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Jim Harvey February 10, 2011 at 6:14 am

Olivia,

There’s also a point to be made here about about classical story structure. Shakespeare (building on the Greek tradition of ‘chorus’ etc.) Uses the prologue in his plays to do a number of things.

1- quieten the crowd and get them hooked from the start
2- tells them what he wants them to do to get the most out of the play
3- tempt them with tasty morsels from the story…

if they ‘do with patient ears attend’ the ’2-hours traffic of our stage’. But he doesn’t give the plot away, just the core theme.

In Romeo and Juliet, he promises the (hungry, diseased, drunk, depressed and oppressed) people who would have been in his audience in the 1500′s, rich Italians (how exotic), hatred, sex (always a winner) , murder, suicide (a crime against God) and a happy ending (of sorts) in the first 45 seconds. Then he tells the audience to be patient, and promises them that all will be clear by the end.

It’s pure salesmanship. And half-way between giving the conclusion at the beginning, and leaving it ’til the end.

And at the very bitter end he nails them with the epilogue. He tells them that they must go away and talk about what they’ve seen, and tells them that they’ve never heard such a story before!

It’s brilliant, but you can only do it in real life if you’re confident that you have a strong story. But when you do, and you do it, it’s amazing the effect it has on even the most cynical, senior and jaded crowd.

Jim

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Olivia Mitchell February 10, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Thanks Jim, for adding Shakespeare into the mix.

Olivia

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Mike Diamond November 22, 2013 at 4:35 am

Yep! Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em. It enables audiences to join you in a journey, rather than wondering where you’re going. Good stuff Jeremy.

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