Abandon your agenda! (3 options that beat “Tell them what you’re going to tell them…” when you present)

Does this age-old advice about presenting sound familiar?

  1. Tell people what you’re going to tell them.
  2. Tell them.
  3. Tell them what you told them.

You’ve probably heard that advice many times (and you might well follow it, too). It basically says:

“Start your presentation with an agenda,
and end with a summary slide” [Doubtful advice]

I’ve used that format myself lots of times. But the more I thought and read about it, the more I realised it tends to bore listeners, for 4 reasons:

So what should you do instead? Happily, you’ve 3 neat options (each of which has 3 parts).

In abbreviated form, here are those 3 options – which you can click on to jump ahead:

Let’s look at each of those in turn


Option 1: Conclusion, reasoning, action
(Good for internal business meetings)Scroll to Contents ↑

I love this ground-breaking way of structuring your talk, suggested by Dave Paradi, who’s a PowerPoint MVP. In more detail, it looks like this:

  1. Tell people your conclusion.
  2. Show them your reasoning behind it.
  3. Call them to action because of it.

As Dave says, this option’s great for common business presentations (like a status update presented to project stakeholders). That’s because it states the key message quickly and clearly (while people are still paying attention!), then backs it up with details (so people can draw meaning from them), and ends by making the next steps crystal clear (so your talk has a tangible outcome).

For instance, in a status update, you might say:

“To respect your time, let me share the bottom line in just 1 sentence:
The project’s still on schedule, and the budget excess is much decreased since last month.

Let’s look at the details…

To sum up then, let me restate that the project’s on time, and the budget overrun has improved by 30% since last month. So that’s why I ask for your continued support with this key project.”

At the end, notice I suggest you still repeat the key point from your opening line (which in this case is about the schedule and budget). That’s because, in a complete talk, you’ll have been through lots of details since you mentioned the key point at the start, so people might’ve forgotten it. As your key point should be just a short sentence, and your call-to-action hinges on it, saying it again at the end makes sense.


Option 2: Problem(s), solution, action
(Good for sales pitches, or tough crowds)Scroll to Contents ↑

For a sales presentation, you might not want to start with your conclusion (which is likely something like “Our product can solve your problem”). If you did lead with that, you’d probably seem too pushy, which sets off people’s defences. In fact, the same applies any time you’re presenting to a skeptical audience.

So when presenting a sales pitch, or to a tough audience, I suggest you use this format:

  1. Show people you understand their problem/s.
    (If your solution solves multiple problems, you’ll have a stronger case. Still, it’s best to limit the number, ideally with the Rule of 3. By that I mean either describe 3 distinct problems your audience has, or describe more problems than that but organise them into 3 types. That way, they’re easy for people to digest and remember.)
  2. Show people your solution.
  3. Call them to action.

As an example, let’s take the project update you saw above, but now modify it for a tough audience:

“Before I go into details on the project, let me say I heard this quarter’s figures are down so far, so we’re getting squeezed. Alex and Kim,
I appreciate that your teams are under a lot of pressure.

That’s why I’d like you to remember one of the aims of this project: Part of our remit is to improve revenue in our Eastern markets. There’s huge potential there, and this project can help you tap it, as I’ll show shortly.

So now, let me share the project’s status in just 1 sentence: We’re still on schedule, and the budget excess is much decreased since last month.

Let’s look at the details…

To sum up then, please keep in mind that by completing this project, we’ll improve your teams’ figures enormously, as you saw on slide 12. Let me also restate that the project’s on time, and the budget overrun has improved by 30% since last month. So that’s why I ask for your continued support with this vital project.”


Option 3: Promise, provision, action
(Good for webinars and conferences)Scroll to Contents ↑

This 3rd option was suggested by webinar expert Ken Molay and suits any talk where people attend after reading the session’s description.

For instance, this could be a great choice if you’re speaking on a webinar, or at a conference, or to an association who advertised your talk to its members.

Here’s how it looks:

  1. Share the promise of people’s takeaways (saying something like
    “By the end of this session, you’ll be able to”).
  2. Actually provide those takeaways.
  3. Call people to action.

For instance, you might say:

“By the end of this session, you’ll be able to structure your talks using 3 powerful techniques. They’re far more effective than ‘Telling people what you’re going to tell them…’

Let’s begin with the 1st technique…

So now, I implore you: Use the criteria you’ve learnt today to choose the most suitable of those 3 techniques for your next talk.”


Next stepsScroll to Contents ↑

I hope the points above help you see the “Tell them…” approach in a new light, and that the 3 options in this post are useful for your specific situation.

Now, do you have any comments or suggestions on the 3 options, or on the examples of what you might say? Please let me know in the comments below.

If you haven’t already, I also highly recommend you read the other bloggers’ posts mentioned above. Each is only about 600 words, so takes less than 4 minutes to read:


See alsoScroll to Contents ↑


4 thoughts on “Abandon your agenda! (3 options that beat “Tell them what you’re going to tell them…” when you present)

  1. I’ve recently transferred from teaching special needs pupils, which is mostly one-to-one tuition to teaching adults who’ve been out of school for years on a career pathway away from education. So I am now preparing presentations and lessons to a completely new audience. I was brought up on the “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em…..” at Teacher training and my title slides are just that…..”straight line graphs”…..”algebra intro” etc. But no more! Having removed all the kiddy cartoons for a more grown-up audience, I am now going to go through the presentations and spice up the title slides, then as time allows put in more of a “sales pitch” along the lines you have so eloquently outlined above, with my promise (you can master algebra with a few simple steps), provision – the lesson, action: the pupils do it!

    Business ideas can lead perfectly into education, in my view, as we, as educators, try to “sell” our ideas to our audience, the learners. This is not always easy with maths!


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