9. Presentations

9.1 - Format of the presentation station

The letter inviting you to the interview (usually the shortlisting letter) will nearly always include details of any presentation that you may be required to prepare, including the topic, the type of audience, the anticipated duration, the format and other important details such as the PowerPoint version in which your file must be saved and whether the presentation needs to be emailed before the day.

If the organisation intends to give you the presentation topic on the day of the presentation itself then the letter will say so explicitly. As such, if the shortlisting letter does not contain any mention of a presentation, you can reasonably assume that there won’t be one.

Here is a summary of the key features that you may encounter:

  1. Timing
    Presentations usually last 5-10 minutes, nearly always followed by a 10-minute Questions & Answers session (total time is therefore 20 minutes).

  2. Audience
    Most presentations need to be delivered to the interview panel just before the “normal” interview starts. In some cases, presentations must be delivered to an invited audience (e.g. everyone from the department, HR, senior managers. The shortlisting letter will normally specify who is included in the audience; if it doesn’t, make sure that you ask in order to avoid any last-minute surprises.

  3. Delivery
    It is most usual for presentations to be delivered by PowerPoint and the organisation would provide a projection screen but some may require candidates to speak without slides.

9.2 - Ingredients for a good presentation

We have all attended presentations where the presenter was reading his slides word for word or, showing a very busy slide, uttered “You probably can’t see this clearly but this graph shows that….etc.” The key to a good presentation is to engage the audience and impart information that is relevant to the topic and the audience, and expressed in way that is intelligible. There are a number of important pointers which should help you reflect on your approach.

(i) Maximum 1 slide per minute

It takes an average listener 15 - 20 seconds to take on board the content of your slide. At the same time as they are reading your slides, they also have to listen to you. Try to limit the number of slides to 1 per 60s/90s; a 10-minute presentation should therefore contain 7 - 10 slides.

(ii) Don’t use your slides as notes

Your slides are designed to make it easier for your audience to follow your speech; they are not designed as an aide-memoire to the lazy presenter. If all you are doing is read your slides, then there is no point in you being there; you might as well leave them the handout and go. Some of the best presentations have no slides at all, or most of the slides are occupied by graphs and pictures. Make sure your slides add value to your presentation and that they are not just a substitute for it.

(iii) Structure your talk: use the rule of 3

Most people can only remember 3 things at a time. That is why most slogans and quotes come in 3's:

  • Blood, Sweat and Tears
  • Education, Education, Education
  • Ready, Steady, Go
  • Yes we can! (Barack Obama)
  • I’m loving it! (McDonald')
  • Just do it (Nike)
  • Obey your thirst (Sprite)

A presentation with too many sections will be hard to follow; your audience will have barely have time to get into one of your ideas that you will have moved on to another one. Keep the number of sections to a minimum. Most presentations can be structured around 3 (or 4) central themes. If your presentation has too many slides or headings, look at it from a different angle and see if a different structure can help streamline your message.

If you account for:

  • 1 title slide
  • + 1 introduction slide
  • + 2 slide for each theme (say) = 6 slides
  • + 1 summary slide

You will get to 8 slides in total, a comfortable number for a 10-minute presentation.

(iv) Design your slides so that they can be read easily

To ensure the comfort of your audience, bear in mind the following:

  • Use the 4 x 4 rule for bullet points: Maximum 4 bullet points per slide, each with a maximum of 4 words. Do not write full sentences (no one will bother reading them, particularly if you are repeating the words anyway). Example:

                                - Requires more accurate coding
    - Increases efficiency and standards
    - Encourages use of practitioners
    - May result in closures

  • Minimum font size 30: Aim to keep the font size 30-32.  If your font size needs to be smaller to make everything fit then you probably have too much information on your slides. As a rule of thumb, if you cannot read a slide on your computer screen from a distance of 3 meters, then you need to rethink your formatting.

(v) Vary the visual message

There is more to presentation slides than just bullet points. You can also include pictures, graphs & charts and diagrams. However, avoid using too many distracting features such as moving gif files, points flying across the screen and generally anything which adds no real value to your content. Avoid slide-after-slide of bullet points as much as you can; they are boring to read in the first place and most presenters just take a lazy approach by reading them aloud. Your panel' attention span for visual aids is approximately 7 to 8 seconds. This is increased by 50% if colour is added (so, about 11 to 12 seconds). Adding images can increase attention span to 15 - 20 seconds. When preparing visual aids, you should keep this in mind.

(vi) Use charts appropriately

There is nothing worse than a busy chart which takes an hour to decipher and which the presenter asks you to take at face value: “You probably can’t see it clearly but the graph shows that there is an increase in sales for the period March to July”. If the graph does not serve its purpose other than to make it look as if you did a bit of research then ditch it and find a better way of presenting the information.

  Pie Charts

Used to show percentages. Limit the slices to 4-6 and contrast the most important slice either with colour or by exploding the slice

  Vertical Bar Charts

Used to show changes in quantity over time. Best if you limit the bars to 4-8.

  Horizontal Bar Charts

Used to compare quantities. For example, comparing income or expenditure across departments.


Tables are used to provide basic information. They usually lack impact unless they have a very small number of cells. If possible, use charts instead.

(vii) Use colour appropriately

Colours can be divided into two general categories: Cool (such as blue and green) and Warm (such as orange and red). Cool colours work best for backgrounds as they appear to recede away from us into the background. Warm colours generally work best for objects in the foreground (such as text) because they appear to be coming at us. It is no surprise, then, that the most ubiquitous PowerPoint slide colour scheme includes a blue background with yellow text. You do not need to feel compelled to use this colour scheme, though you may choose to use a variation of those colours.

If you are presenting in a dark room, then a dark background (dark blue, grey, etc.) with white or light text will work fine. But if you plan to keep most of the lights on (which is highly advisable) then a white background with black or dark text works much better. In rooms with a good deal of ambient light, a screen image with a dark background and light text tends to washout, but dark text on a light background will better maintain its visual intensity.

(viii) Don’t rush the preparation

Too often, the first thing that candidates do when they start preparing a presentation is to open PowerPoint and start typing. It can give a great sense of achievement; after all you are doing “something” but doing so without careful planning can be counterproductive.

Such writing process leads to a “brainstorm presentation”, often characterised by poor structure and lengthy slides. The main issue is that, having spent several hours on the presentation, candidates are then reluctant to do more than just tweaking a few slides when, in some cases, the information may be complete but the structure of the talk may require a full revamp.

If you can, try to brainstorm for ideas without writing directly into slides. Write your slides only when you are confident that you have a clear structure and a good flow in the story that you are about to tell.

(ix) Don’t forget your audience

The panel will include a variety of people from different sectors. Each will have their own point of view on the topic and you must make sure that they gain something from your presentation. Do not make the mistake of discussing the topic purely from a single perspective.

(x) Rehearse properly

At the risk of stating the obvious, you must make sure that you rehearse your presentation many times so that you know it well, even without any visual aids. You should rehearse the presentation at least 4 times, two of which should be under time pressure. If you are struggling to link your ideas fluently during the rehearsals, then it usually means that the ideas are unclear in the first place or that your structure is inadequate. This is usually a sign that you need to redo parts of the presentation.

(xi) Deliver convincingly

Your voice:

  • Do not rush your delivery. A normal pace is approximately 160 words per minute if you have no slides. With slides you should speak more slowly.
  • Your voice must be confident and normally loud.  Avoid dropping your voice at the end of your sentences.
  • Pause briefly between each slide. You might know your topic well but your audience will need time to keep up with you.

Your notes:

  • As much as possible you should talk without notes. If you are worried about running dry, you can keep some small prompts on 6x4 cards which you should keep in your pocket.

Your body language:

  • Smile! Even a nervous smile is more endearing than a depressed or terrorised look.
  • Look at your audience, not at the screen or the laptop. You should know what is on your slides without having to refer to them constantly.
  • Adopt a natural stance. This means having you feet 10 inches apart with your knees very slightly bent. Relax your shoulders.
  • Beware of your natural habits. Some people have a tendency to play with loose change in their pockets, to sway from one foot to the other, to play with a pen or their watch strap. You must be able to identify those habits and eliminate them before someone on the panel finds them irritating.
  • Keep your hands in front of your stomach. You can move them but not in an exaggerated fashion.

(xii) Be prepared for all eventualities

In the unlikely event of a technical malfunction, make sure that you have covered all possible issues:

  • Save your presentation onto a CD as well as a USB in case it does not work on their computer
  • Save it in different versions of PowerPoint and if you have a Mac, make sure that you are fully compatible.
  • Bring hard copies of your slides with you (2 per page is ideal, no need to go for full A4). You should allow for one set per panel member (but bring a few extra in case of any additional attendees