Stand out when you speak (F!RST framework – part 4)

Dozens of identical silver cogs standing on their edges in neat rows, with 1 bright red cog misaligned and standing out boldly

(In a rush? Jump to the tips.)

Be honest with yourself. How much would you say your talks stand out from other people’s? More to the point, how much would your audi­ence say your talks stand out?

Whether you work in business or education, audiences see so many presentations that standing out can be tough. But, on the other hand, presentations don’t tend to vary a lot, which makes your task easier!

You and your message really need to stand out to be remembered and get talked about, which both help you turn your talk into audience action. (After all, if people don’t act differently once your talk’s over, what tangible effect has it had?)

And, as Sally Hogshead (a member of the Speaker Hall of Fame) so bluntly puts it:

“Stand out or don’t bother”
Sally Hogshead

So, what can you do to stand out from the countless presentations out there?

Well, in the overview of the FiRST framework, I suggested a mnemonic (“OPQRS”) to segment your approach to standing out, and to help you remember related techniques.

That mnemonic stands for 5 categories of tips, in topics that are key to standing out:

O –   Overhaul (not overwhelm!)
P –   Pictures
Q –   Quotes
R –   Refinements
S –   Statistics

You can click any of those links to jump ahead to specific tips. Or, just carry on reading


O – Overhaul (not overwhelm!)Scroll to Contents ↑

Approach your presentation in a strikingly different way

Think of the countless presentations happening around the world, every minute of the day. To stand out from all that competition, you really need to approach your presentation in a strikingly different way.

Plus, the typical presentation:

  • Overwhelms the audience with too much detail on the slides
  • Focuses on the speaker’s viewpoint and needs, rather than the listeners’ goals
  • Assumes the audience just wants facts, and forgets their feelings

So it’s fitting that the 1st element for standing out is about doing a complete overhaul of the usual approach to presenting.

I urge you to do that in these 3 ways:

Let’s dig into each of those in more detail

Don’t use slides as a crutchScroll to Contents ↑

From an audience’s viewpoint, the reason PowerPoint (and other slideware) has an awful reputation is that almost all presenters abuse it so badly!

Remember that you don’t need slides at all

To avoid that when you present, and to stand out boldly as a result, first remember that you don’t need slides at all. In fact, talks supported by just a flipchart or whiteboard – or even without any visual aids – are often more engaging, memorable, and dare I say enjoyable than a typical slide-show. And that’s true for the audience and the presenter!

As an example, here’s just 1 minute of self-help guru Brendon Burchard using a flipchart like a boss. Notice he removes note paper to reveal key words he’s written on the chart in advance, so it’s clear he’s working to a strong structure he’s developed already. Yet he also fills in pre-drawn blanks by hand, which makes his delivery dynamic, and novel:

Use these 6 tips to strengthen your slideshow

All the same, if you do decide to use slides, use them to help your audience – not yourself. To do that, you can use these 6 tips to strengthen your slideshow:

1 Present just one thought per slide, which keeps your message clear. (A helpful tip’s to write the thought as a statement, and use it as the slide’s title.)
2 Favour true visuals like charts, photos and diagrams (see an example) rather than text. To help people understand, you’ll still need to use some text (like in your slide titles), but to keep that in perspective, see the next point too
3 Have about 15 words (at most) per slide (including words in diagrams and charts). Otherwise, people get distracted from what you’re saying – by reading!
4 Use your slide notes for any excess text. That lets you still refer to it – using Presenter View, or even a printout – but your audience isn’t distracted by it.
5 Use “builds” to reveal your content gradually, as you mention it (so people listen instead of just looking at your slide) – even if you’re showing a diagram or chart.
6 Turn the screen black when you either open a discussion or tell a story (unless you’re presenting online, in which case show a “theme” slide to avoid “dead air”). That stops a slide from competing with you for attention, so people stay engaged.

Help people reach their goalsScroll to Contents ↑

Most speakers are fixated on their own content. So instead of that, if you think of your talk as a way to help your audience reach their goals, what changes? A lot does!

From your viewpoint:

    Focus on what action people’ll take to reach their goals

  • First you need to consider your listeners, and what their goals are.
  • Then, you need to focus on what action people’ll take to reach their goals. (You no longer focus on your topic for its own sake.)
  • And lastly, you need to structure & phrase your talk in their terms, so they can easily grasp and act on it.

From your audience’s viewpoint, the result is a far more engaging and helpful presentation. And because people rarely describe a talk as “engaging and helpful”, you and your content will stand way out!

To help people reach their goals, try these tips:

Touch people’s feelingsScroll to Contents ↑

Very few presenters touch their listeners’ feelings

Very few presenters touch their listeners’ feelings – especially at work – yet doing so’s really the secret to inspiring and persuading people.

But don’t worry, you don’t necessarily need to make people laugh – or cry! You can make them feel something less dramatic, like being:

  • Shocked by a startling statistic.
  • Intrigued about what you’ll say next.
  • Engaged by a story about beating stiff competition.

And on that last point, about stories, as Brendon Burchard puts it in his video above:

“Your thoughtfulness in developing stories is one
of the most important things you can ever do”
Brendon Burchard

So here’s 3 tips to help you touch people’s feelings:

  • Start strong (from your very 1st words) with an opening line that’s either:
    • a scenario – that is, asking people to picture a risk or reward they face
    • a startling statistic
    • the start of a story you then tell
    • or, what professional speaker Jon Acuff calls a lean-in line.
  • Intrigue people at the start of your talk, and several times during it. For instance, if you’re speaking about business results, you might simply say something like:

Can you guess who this month’s top performers are?
[Pause to let people guess in their heads]
In third place we have…”

  • Tell emotive stories that make a point about your topic – at any stage of your talk. For example, in a business setting, you might talk about:
    • Success of a happy customer.
    • Threat from a specific competitor.
    • Inspiration you get from one of your colleagues.

As an example of how to start strong (in this case with a startling statistic), here’s the 1st few seconds of Jamie Oliver’s talk at TED:


P – PicturesScroll to Contents ↑

Pictures are vital in any effective slide deck, yet most presenters have negligible graphic design skills! So that means graphical content is full of ways you can stand out.

For our purposes, you can divide pictures into 4 categories, which from now on you might remember using an acronymLIPS:

Most of the tips below focus on photos and diagrams. So before looking at those, let’s just briefly touch on logos and icons

LogosScroll to Contents ↑

So many presenters put their company logo on each slide

There’s a classic mistake with logos: So many presenters put their company logo on each slide. That’s a mistake because repeating your logo like that doesn’t help your audience. In fact, it subtly hinders them (by adding “noise”).

So to stand out from the masses, don’t put your logo on each slide. In fact, to go further, “bookend” your slide deck with a very big copy of the logo instead, as in the example slide below. (You can find full details by clicking the link above.)

I’ve never seen any other presenter use that technique, so you’ll stand out enormously!

IconsScroll to Contents ↑

Professional presentation designers who’ve been trained in graphic design often use icons. But the vast majority of presenters don’t, so if you use them, you’ll stand out and look very polished.

As professional slide designer Bethany Auck puts it:

“A simple way for any non-designer to
add visual interest… is to include icons”
Bethany Auck

And because icons are like visual shorthand, they’re a great way to represent concepts, especially if you’ll mention the same concepts more than once during your talk.

For instance, you could use icons to represent the topics you’ll speak about during your talk. That lets you first show a list of topics, each with its own icon, as in this example from a slide makeover I did:

In that example, you’d reuse the relevant icon at the start of each topic:

Using icons makes your slides:

  • more visual
  • more cohesive
  • and more appealing.

For all those reasons, I strongly recommend you use icons.

PhotosScroll to Contents ↑

Photos are great for 2 purposes:

  • Making your words more concrete (like when you first mention a concept or object, or a specific person or place).
  • Helping you convey feelings.

Photos can be really handy for expressing… empathy, awe, or even humour

For example, photos can be really handy for expressing fairly complex emotions like empathy, awe, or even humour. They can also be helpful because you don’t always need to express the emotion yourself (which you mightn’t feel comfortable doing in a business setting).

In a talk on planning, for instance, you could get smiles (or laughs) from your audience with the photo below:

(Strictly speaking, that’s a photo-realistic graphic rather than a photo, but most audience members probably wouldn’t know or care!)

That bit of “fun” makes you stand out, yet it’s still relevant and on-topic, and as a result people are much more likely to remember your message, too. And with luck, they might even share your slide on social media!

With photos, perhaps the 3 top areas presenters miss out on are:

  • Size – Using photos that’re too small to have much impact. (I’d say this is by far the biggest mistake speakers make with photos – if you forgive the pun!)
  • Starkness – Distracting the audience by choosing photos that are too busy (rather than using simple or “stark” ones). Busyness can also be caused by lack of contrast – where the focus, colour and/or lighting’s too uniform.
  • Styling – Using shots that look staged. (Either they contain striking models who’re all smiling. Or, for shots of objects, the composition’s highly symmetrical, so it’s boring, or the shots look like they were taken in a studio.)

In all those cases, the photos don’t stir people’s emotions, so your audience feels less engaged with your message as a whole.

To fix the biggest mistake, as mentioned above, here’s one of the most powerful ways you can show a photo:

But what if the photo’s too emotive at that size (like when it’s a closeup of someone’s face)? Or, suppose you just have a small copy that looks blurred when it’s that big, or you simply want to give your audience more variety. In cases like those, use the tips below, which get less common as you go down this list:

  • Add a visual effect like a frame, shadow, rotation (up to about 10°), and/or reflection to the shot. In PowerPoint, you can do that easily by double-clicking the photo to open the Format tab, then clicking an icon in the Picture Styles box.
  • Put the photo on a “belly band” (a coloured stripe that’s the full width or height of the slide) for a more unusual effect. That makes your photo look like its size is deliberate, rather than the shot just seeming to “float” rather randomly on the slide.
  • Show the photo on a black slide (with nothing else on screen) to make it really stand out, like the example below (which also uses a frame and a 5° rotation):

Schematics – simple diagramsScroll to Contents ↑

Speakers tend to underuse diagrams (in favour of bullet points…)

Diagrams can be a great way to stand out, because speakers tend to underuse them (in favour of bullet points and text).

Still, two of the commonest types are timelines and process flow diagrams. So if you include either of those, use one or both of these points to make your diagram stand out:

  1. Make it look professionally designed:
    • Avoid the vivid colours used in common PowerPoint themes, which so many presenters use – choose colours that are less glaring (with lower saturation).
    • If you want people to focus on a key part of the diagram, use a highlight colour for that part, and 1 or more shades of a 2nd colour for the rest.
    • Or, if you want to show that various parts of the diagram have distinct meanings, use a different colour (along with icons to help everyone who’s colourblind) for each of those parts. For instance, to show the status of different tasks, you might use red, orange and green.
    • To label various parts, use callouts like you might see in a magazine article (that is, vertical and/or horizontal lines with a small dot or ring at the end). For example, that’s what Yousef Abu-Ghaidah, a pro slide designer did in this funnel diagram, part of which I’ve enlarged to show one of the callouts:
  2. Use your diagram in an unconventional way that helps your audience, like with these tips you can use for timelines or process diagrams:
    • Instead of a typical agenda, use a timeline (or pie chart) to show how long you’ll spend on each part of your talk, as is so well explained by Glenna Shaw, who’s a PowerPoint MVP.
    • Nancy Duarte suggests making a timeline or process flow too wide for your slide, then using a Push transition to scroll it to the left, to show time passing. You can download an example flow diagram from the Duarte website. (After following that link, scroll down to the Push Transition section.)


Q – QuotesScroll to Contents ↑

Few presenters tap the power of a great quote

Few presenters tap the power of a great quote (especially when they’re speaking at work). So to stand out from the crowd, be one of the small number who do.

As an example, suppose you’re speaking at a conference about the future of work. To be provocative, you might use this Tim Ferriss quote:

“Being busy is a form of laziness –
lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”
Tim Ferriss

And here’s how it might look on a slide:

For epic impact, use these 3 key tips to help you and your quote stand out:

    1. Be shrewd.
    2. Keep it short.
    3. Make it shine.

  1. Be shrewd, by which I mean:
    • Quote people or publications your audience admires. For instance, if you’re speaking to a business audience, you might quote Warren Buffett or Harvard Business Review.
    • Make sure each quote nails the point you’re making, rather than just being loosely related.
    • To keep people engaged, I recommend you use at most 2 quotes in any talk. And if you often present to the same audience (like at work), use quotes in just some of your talks there.
  2. Keep it short. There’s real power in a punchline, so keep your quotes punchy.
  3. Make it shine. To get the most from your quote, put it in big, highly readable text. And for a “professionally designed” look, wrap it in oversized quotation marks.

For detailed tips about using quotes, see these 25+ tips.


R – RefinementsScroll to Contents ↑

By “refinements”, I mean small changes you make to your slides – and the way you present – so you look more professional, helping you and your message stand out.

Here are the top 3 refinements I recommend:

    Highly saturated colours look less professional

  • Avoid vivid colours. Presenters often choose a design theme with highly saturated colours, which look less professional than more muted shades. For instance, some colours from the default Office Theme are shown on the slide below. To stand out, I suggest you tone down your palette and use colours more thoughtfully.
  • Vary your pace according to your content. And, to let your listeners properly absorb your message, try to pause for about 2 seconds after most sentences you say.
  • Enhance the Q&A. Most presenters tend to keep the same slide on the screen the whole time they’re answering questions. So to stand out (and to keep people visually engaged), why not show “theme” slides that represent each question? That’s especially useful if you’re presenting online, where people get distracted more easily. But my main tip is not to end on questions and answers, because if you do, you can’t control how your talk ends. So instead, save your powerful closing words for after the Q&A.

Below are some of the vivid colours in the Office Theme mentioned above. Do they look familiar – especially the darker blue in the shape on the left?


S – StatisticsScroll to Contents ↑

When speakers use statistics or other numeric data, such as charts, they tend to flood the screen with them. The result? People tune out, and the data’s meaning is lost – along with its impact.

Slash the amount of data you present, which launches its impact

It’s far better to slash the amount of data you present, which launches its impact sky high. You can choose from 3 methods for doing that – arranged here from most to least impactful:

  • If there’s a single, startling statistic that expresses what you want to convey, and it relates to an amount of physical material, use a prop to represent it if you can. For instance, that’s what Jamie Oliver did when he showed the amount of sugar served in milk at school.
  • If there’s a single, startling statistic, but it doesn’t relate to something you can show as a prop, instead show the number in a huge font, with no other figures in sight. This is also a great time to use an emotive photo, to show the impact on people.
  • If your data contains a pattern that you want to portray, show it in a chart. For instance:

    Suppose sales volumes varied just slightly from month to month for most of the last year. But then for the last 3 months they markedly decreased month-on-month. In cases like that, a column chart (or a line chart) is a great way to show the dramatic change over time.

When using charts, probably the 2 commonest gaffes are:

So, to stand out from other presenters when using charts, first I suggest:

  • Put no more than 1 chart on any slide. (If you can’t convey the slide’s message with just 1 chart, I’d say you’ve used the wrong chart!)
  • Have at most 2 chart slides in a row.
  • Where you can, use more non-chart slides than chart slides in your deck.

Then, to make each chart’s meaning clear:

“Recent sales dropped 30% month-on-month”

  • Use just one colour for most of the chart’s bars (or slices, if you’re using a pie chart), and highlight the main point in a contrasting colour. For example, to show that sales for the last 3 months have decreased sharply, you could colour those 3 bars orange and the other bars grey.
  • Remove clutter, or “chart junk”, as much as you can. That means getting rid of unneeded items like axis lines, legends, labels, gridlines, and tick marks.


Over to youScroll to Contents ↑

This is a long post, so well done for getting to the end! Please add your own thoughts in the comments.

  • Which part of the “OPQRS model” appeals to you most?
  • Do you do something else to stand out?

Here’s a reminder of what’s in this post:

O –   Overhaul (not overwhelm!)
P –   Pictures
Q –   Quotes
R –   Refinements
S –   Statistics


See alsoScroll to Contents ↑


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