Choosing the right words for your presentation


Recipe for success

Putting a presentation together is a bit like baking a cake. Once you have mastered the basic recipe, you can flavour it with whatever content you find most delicious.

Language is one of the most crucial ingredients in your presentation recipe. A speaker with a great delivery technique can still lose an audience if the words they are using are uninspiring, patronizing or overly complicated.

Variety is the spice of the life

Using repetitive language in your presentation is a sure-fire way to put your audience to sleep. Instead, mix things up with a few metaphors, similes, and anecdotes.

Since we think in pictures rather than words, use language that will place enchanting images into the minds of your audience. Onomatopoeic words like sizzle, splash and cuckoo are especially good at bringing ideas to life. 

Say it simply

When writing a presentation, you should write for the ear and not the eye. The ear likes to hear short and simple words and sentences spoken clearly. If all of your sentences are too long, i.e., 25-30 words, cut them down.

A speaker who drones on and on without stopping is tough to follow and understand. Stick to short, sharp sentences that are easy to process, and your audience will stick with you.

The simpler the language in your presentation is, the more people will be able to understand your message. Try substituting elaborate words for something more basic.

Instead of             Try using


illustrate                   show

residence                  home

tranquil                     calm

commencement      start

disseminate             spread

elucidate                  clarify

encounter                meet


Change pace

Your voice is like a musical instrument playing a tune. For that melody to remain interesting, you need to vary the pace of what you are saying. 

Presentations in which every sentence is the same length sound dull. Switch up the rhythm and keep it exciting by using both short and long sentences. 

In the extract below, Barack Obama uses a variety of sentence lengths in his State of the Union Address. Note the last part where he uses four short, punchy sentences to drive home his message:

“We face big and difficult challenges. And what the American people hope — what they deserve – is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences; to overcome the numbing weight of our politics. For, while the people who sent us here have different backgrounds and different stories and different beliefs, the anxieties they face are the same. The aspirations they hold are shared. It’s a job that pays the bill. A chance to get ahead. Most of all,the ability to give their children a better life.”

Lose the fluff

A presentation that has been written for the eye and not the ear can be weighed down by unnecessary words – fluff.

For example, instead of using “the next few years may be challenging,” the presentation states “we are all here facing a tumultuous task ahead of us in the next few years to come”.

When you are reading your presentation, take out any words and sentences that don’t actually add anything. Keep it simple for yourself and most importantly for your listener.

Statistics and facts

Everybody loves to hear new information, especially if it is delivered in a new and exciting way. 

Next time you use a statistic in your presentation, consider making it visual and participatory.

For example, instead of asking your audience “Did you know that 1-in-3 people will get cancer in their lifetime?”  

Instead, try: “Can I get the right side of the room to raise your hands? That is the proportion of people in this room who will get cancer in their lifetime.”  

Using quotes

If used correctly, quotes can be the cherry on top of your presentation cake.   

Some pointers:

  •       Avoid long and complicated quotes; your message will get lost in translation
  •       Add the quote effortlessly, don’t say “quote, unquote” at the beginning and end
  •       Mention the author of the quote, e.g. Margaret Thatcher used to say, “In my day, it was about doing something. Now it is just about being someone,” then pause to let your audience know that the quote has ended
  •       Use no more than 2-3 quotes in a 15-minute presentation; let your own words take the starring role
  •       Only use quotes that you know your audience can relate to

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