If you ask anyone what they think of PowerPoint presentations, they’ll probably give you a strong reaction. But whether you love, hate, or want to ban them from your world forever, the truth is that slide decks are (and will continue to be) part of your professional life for the foreseeable future.
But don’t despair. PowerPoint is just a tool. Whether a presentation is bad or good depends on the person creating the slides. Bad presentations are a user problem, not a software problem, and the worst of them tend to make sense to the presenter, just not to the audience.
Creating a presentation that will succeed and resonate with your audience requires a dose of emotional intelligence–long before you actually start building your slides. Here are a few easy, low-tech steps to help you do that.
STEP 1: Understand your audience through empathy.
Before you even open PowerPoint, try to put yourself in the shoes of your audience and think about what matters to them. Go for a walk, doodle, do whatever works for you. Just don’t open the software yet.
Empathy is a key part of emotional intelligence, and without it, you can wind up delivering a message that does your listeners no good–and might even be painful to sit through. So your starting point should be taking a moment to anticipate and understand your specific audience. Ask yourself, what might be their fears and aspirations, thoughts and opinions? What do they know and not know? What are their pains? What makes them happy?
Answering these questions will help you build an audience profile consisting of the key decision-makers you’re trying to reach. If the audience is people you know, create an Empathy Map to identify their needs. If you’re dealing with an audience you don’t know, make guesses and create personas for key segments.
STEP 2: Write a storyline that speaks to your audience’s concerns.
The next step is using that audience profile to build an engaging narrative. If the first step was about using emotional intelligence to understand audience needs, this is about using emotional intelligence to influence the audience.
For every concern and question your audience may have, write out a message that addresses each one and meets your objectives. Those messages should rely on a mix of emotion and data, but remember that we humans are more likely to make decisions based on emotions than on logic.
To do this effectively, you need to tell stories. Find anecdotes about things the audience cares about, whether it’s colleagues, customers, profitability, or product. Weave these stories–the more personal the better–into your presentation. Your goal here is to put them into an order that reflects your understanding of your audience and what it’s going to take to persuade them. Remember that you’re more likely to succeed if you can hook listeners from the beginning, so put what matters to them early in your storyline.
For example, if you’re trying to persuade your audience to change, start with “why,” then move on to the “what” and “how.” Finish the storyline with a call to action, something that hits your objectives while addressing their needs.
STEP 3: Build slides that deliver your storyline.
Now is the time to finally fire up your slide presentation software! Start designing one or more slides for each message in your storyline. Think about what images will resonate with this audience. What colors and words can provoke or inspire them? How much data? Don’t forget design, either: Ask yourself how each slide looks from the audience’s perspective. Is it clear? Will they know what to take away from it?
Self-awareness, another aspect of emotional intelligence, also matters here. What’s your presentation style–conversational, authoritative, playful, or provocative? As clichéd as it may sound, it’s important for you to be authentic when you’re delivering your presentation. No matter how clued into your audience’s needs you might be, they’ll disconnect if they can sense that you’re pretending to be someone else.
STEP 4: Review and ask for feedback.
Once you’ve got your prototype deck done, put on your emotional intelligence lens one more time. Go back to the beginning and ask yourself the following questions: Would it answer the audience’s questions and inspire them to action? Will you feel authentic delivering it? Would you want to sit through it? Grab some coworkers, explain who your intended audience is, and get their feedback, too. Then use it to iterate and revise your slide deck if you need to.
Yes, this approach will take more time. But you’ll see the payoff when you deliver the presentation. When it’s clear that you’ve taken your audience’s needs into consideration, they won’t be looking at you with blank stares or bored expressions. They’ll be more engaged and interested–and might even prove it, at the end, with a roaring applause.
This article originally appeared in Fast Company.