Don’t Bury the Lead in Your Presentations

A business man and two women sitting in a presentation

One way to make your presentations more clear and easier to listen to is to avoid burying the lead. “Burying the lead” (sometimes spelled “lede”) is a journalism expression that refers to the failure to mention the most important part of a story first, in effect burying it in the details. This principle applies to presentations because awareness of the “lead” can help you be clearer and more focused.  

There are three ways to apply this concept to your presentations. It’s about how you frame your presentation, design and deliver slides, and answer questions.   

1. Think of the Frame as the Lead of Your Presentation 

As we’ve written here and here, the frame for your presentation does some important things. It communicates the purpose of the presentation, its place in the listeners’ context, the takeaways for listeners, and an agenda. The frame is like a news story’s lead because it tells listeners what’s important and relevant. It also communicates a sense of structure through its agenda.  

Think of your frame as the lead for your presentation. And, because presentations are spoken and not read, the frame is your promise of efficiency. Through it, listeners sense that there is a plan (assuring them that this will not be a rambling, disjointed presentation) and that the presentation is designed to accomplish something that matters to them (there is an obvious achievable goal). When the frame is delivered, the “lead” is in place.  

The frame is a promise of efficiency. To deliver on that promise, it’s important to refer to the elements of the frame throughout your presentation. For example, it’s a good idea to say things like, “Let’s move on to the next point of the agenda” or, “I said we’d be able to make operations run smoother; this is an example of that.” These statements tie back to the frame and hold the presentation together. If you think these connections are obvious and unnecessary to point out, they’re not. Your listeners will appreciate them.  

2. Use the Lead to Make Your Slides Easier to Understand 

Every slide in your deck contributes to the goal of the presentation. It’s important to make that contribution crystal clear. If you’ve ever stared at a slide when listening to a presentation and wondered what you were looking at and why it was on the screen, the presenter has buried the lead.  

You can avoid that problem in two ways. First, emphasize your point in the slide title. There’s a difference between a slide title like “YTD Sales” vs. “YTD Sales Point to a Challenging Q4.” The difference is that the first title is about what the data on the slide is. The second communicates what the data means. Take the time to make your slide titles meaningful and clear. To go back to the journalism comparison, an effective slide title is like a mini headline.  

Second, read your slide title to your listeners. Yes, I know “they can read.” I know you may have been told never to read from your slides. Ignore those rules. By taking the time to read your slide title, you are focusing attention on the point of the slide and making a clean break from the previous slide. This improves clarity because listeners understand (1) what the new slide has to do with the overall purpose of the presentation and (2) that what they are looking at right now is the same thing you are looking at. This tightens your connection to the slide and improves focus. 

A final thought about delivering slide titles: make it obvious. There is no need to try to work the title into another thought or sentence. In fact, the opposite is your goal. Say things like, “OK, let’s go on to the next slide. As you can see in the title, ‘YTD Sales Point to a Challenging Q4…’” This technique prevents confusion. 

3. Begin Every Answer with the Lead 

One of the most common ways presenters bury the lead happens when answering questions. The rule of thumb is to always deliver the short answer first. With a yes/no question, that means beginning your answer with a yes or a no. If you need to supply supporting information, go ahead. But always begin with the yes or the no—when the answer is a “maybe” or an “it depends,” it’s fine to begin there as well.  

As simple as this idea is, it takes effort to put it into practice. There are a lot of reasons the short-answer-first rule is challenging. For example, it may be because the presenter doesn’t want to appear too assertive. Or it could be that the presenter is simply thinking out loud until they land on the answer.  

Question: “Do you think we will meet the deadline?” 

Answer: “For the past few months, we have faced a lot of obstacles. There was the supply chain problem back in the summer. We also lost several team members, either permanently because they resigned or temporarily due to Covid-19. My team has been working overtime for the past month, and I’m happy to say they are making progress. So, the answer to your question is yes; I think we’ll make the deadline.” 

In this example, the presenter circled around the answer, finally landing on the lead in the last sentence.   

In this example, the presenter doesn’t have an answer and winds up sounding evasive.  

Question: “When do you think we’ll be able to increase headcount?” 

Answer: “I know that you’ve all been working overtime recently because we’re short-handed. I know that’s frustrating, and I appreciate your efforts. I talked to my manager about this issue last week, and she said that she’s doing her best to convince leadership that this department needs to be hiring. So, it’s hard to say when things will change. These are challenging times for the whole organization, and resources are thin.  

In both situations, the presenter should have paused, thought of the short answer, and delivered it. “Yes” in the first example and “I don’t know” in the second. The information they include after the answer, if they choose to include it, functions as supporting evidence and is much easier to follow after the answer is delivered.  

In your next presentation, avoid burying the lead. Your listeners will appreciate it.  

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