Picture of conference presenter in Michelle Bowden's blog about Presentation Skills Tip: Creating Messages That Stick!

Presentation Skills Tip: Creating Messages That Stick!

Presentation Skills Tip: Creating Messages That Stick!  Let me ask you: how do you normally go about structuring a presentation? In the past have you designed your presentations by going to PowerPoint and either collating existing slides or creating a few new ones and then working out what to say about them? Or perhaps you have used the, ‘introduction, aim, credentials, body one, body two, body three, summary, conclusion’ model, which is commonly taught in schools and universities. Some people use a variety of mind mapping techniques, such as the fishbone. Do any of these methods sound familiar?

The thing about these approaches is that they are what we call presenter-focused models that tend to be content driven.

If you are keen to influence your audience in your presentation, what you need is an audience-focused model that focuses on the different needs and expectations of all the different people in your audience.

Individuals take in information differently, learn differently and form opinions differently. As a result, individual members of your audience will be silently preoccupied by the different agendas and expectations they have of you. These agendas and expectations lead them to formulate certain unspoken questions that they are expecting you to address in your presentation.

When it comes to structuring your presentation, I recommend you use a learning styles model that helps you tailor your message to the unspoken questions your audience members are asking. This will guarantee that you will achieve more buy-in because it will ensure you cater to the diverse needs of your audience rather than create a presentation that is too focused on your needs.

How to Properly Structure Your Key Messages and Ensure an Effective Presentation

“You don’t build it for yourself. You know what the people want and you build it for them.” —Walt Disney (American film producer).


Hailey is a wonderful client of mine who, before meeting me, had avoided presenting for 20 years of her career. Yes, that’s right: 20 years! She had even quit jobs to avoid presenting. Hailey worked as a counsellor for a major corporation. Her role was to support clients by giving both advice and care over the phone. She was fantastic at her job. She had received countless letters of support from her clients and their families, and was much loved. She was also very successful in increasing sales for the organisation through her commitment and drive.

Much to her horror, Hailey was asked by her manager to begin a series of presentations across the country to the people who referred her service to their clients. Her role would be to explain what she did and to convince the referrers to continue to work with her by referring their clients to her as often as possible. Well, you can just imagine what she did! She told me that she could either quit her job or go to the GP to get a prescription for beta-blockers! Beta-blockers reduce the effect of excitement and physical exertion on the heart, reduce the dilation of blood vessels, and also reduce tremor and breakdown of glycogen. Neither of these choices, in my opinion, were the ideal solution!

Related: 5 Tips to Keep In Mind When Planning Your Next Public Speech

I think it’s amazing how, once you learn what you need to know about exceptional presenting, it’s not that nerve-racking after all. Don’t get me wrong: after five, two-hour coaching sessions and lots of rehearsing, Hailey was still what most people would call nervous, but she was also very excited and she knew she was ready for anything.

Hailey knew she would do well with her presentations because she had put in a lot of planning and rehearsal, and she had crafted her script with her audience in mind. She knew she was going to convince the audience to send lots of clients her way. And just as she suspected, after avoiding presenting for 20 years she totally nailed her first presentation. Many people came to her at the end and commented on how impressed they were. They said things like, ‘You were the best presenter at this event’. What an outcome!


It’s critical that you realise that talented presenters are made, not born! Successful influencers and presenters respect their audience, structure their message for their audience, and rehearse and master their craft. They do the work!


What Hailey realised is that a fundamental technique for influencing others and for reducing your own nerves is to structure your message to meet the needs of your audience. This increases the chance they will do what you are asking them to do, which is wonderful for your own confidence levels. If you have a clear, well-structured, audience-focused message that convinces your audience, and you have designed it with a model that allows you to remember the information without relying on notes, then of course you will feel more confident — just like Hailey!


Tip from Michelle Bowden: It’s important to structure your message in a way that meets the needs of all the people in your audience, not just the people with the same learning or listening style as you!

Photo of a person breaking free of hand cuffs to accompany the artilce Breaking the mediocrity mould written by Michelle Bowden presentation skills trainer
Building blocks to illustrate the need for a solid structure in Michelle Bowden's blog article on structuring a persuasive message

An audience-focused model

The model that I suggest you might like to use when structuring your presentations was developed by Dr. Bernice McCarthy a world leading researcher, academic and educationalist. Dr. McCarthy drew on the various theories of adult learning proposed by psychologists and theorists throughout the ages such as Carl Jung, Jean Piaget, Kurt Lewin and David Kolb. She is passionate about both the diversity of learning styles and the various needs of the different learners in one classroom. She felt strongly that not all learners should be presented to in the same way. She created an instructional system that addresses the intrinsic needs of all audience types.

Dr. McCarthy called her model the 4Mat System. The 4Mat System recognises that individuals need to have four key questions answered. In some cases the questions are explicit and known by the audience members and the presenter. In other cases the questions are more virtual in nature and therefore not yet conscious for either the presenter or the audience members. In most cases, by virtue of their personality and preferred learning style, audience members will be more likely to ask one of these four questions.

In order to be convinced by your argument, they will need to have their primary question answered. This is not to say that they will not be interested in the other questions too. In order to capture the hearts and minds of all audience members, you will need to be sure that your presentation answers all four questions in a given order.

The four key questions to address in the audience-focused model are:

1. Why? The audience member has a need to clarify the context and rationale.

2. What? The audience member has a need to identify the detail of what is to be learnt.

3. How? The audience member has a need to explore how to use and apply what is learned.

4. What if? / What else? The audience member needs to know the alternatives for the new information so they can modify, adapt and create new contexts. They also need to know what will happen if they do and don’t take the action you have suggested.


Using the four questions to make an effective presentation

“All real change involves major uncertainty, and we cannot deny the questioning time to others simply because we have already answered the questions for ourselves.” Bernice McCarthy (creator 4Mat method).


Let’s take a look at what you’d include in each of the 4Mat System quadrants so you can be sure to use the model as effectively as possible.



The question Why? is asked by most audience members at the beginning of presentations or meetings. When you answer Why? for your audience, you are helping them gain personal meaning and connect new information with personal experience. It helps your audience to establish the usefulness of the information in their lives. You are addressing questions like: Why should I listen? What’s in it for me? Why is this relevant to me in my life? When you answer the Why? question early in your presentation, you will engage people and they will be more motivated and inspired to listen to the rest of your message.



The question What? is answered next to deepen your audience members’ understanding of concepts and processes. This is where you deliver the facts, figures, data, information and statistics in your presentation. It’s also where you must remember to explain your credibility and the evidence that supports your information. You would answer questions at this point for your audience such as: What is the definition of this subject matter? What do I know about this? What analysis or research has been conducted to come to this conclusion? What are the facts of the matter? I think you will agree that this is the most commonly answered question in most business presentations.



You need to answer the question How? after you have answered What? This is where you explain the steps and the application of the content you have covered in the What? section of your presentation. You can facilitate concrete, experiential learning activities where your audience can get in and try it. You would specifically answer such questions as: How does it work? How do I install it? How will I implement it? How will I use it? How can I apply it? How will we make this happen?


What if? What else?

The questions What if? and What else? are the final questions you should answer in your presentations. This is where you add your extra thoughts and information. It is where you tie up all the loose ends and remind your audience about your key messages. It’s also where you give the audience a chance to explore some of their questions in a question and answer session, and then close for action. Take the opportunity in this section to look outside the square for possibilities by answering questions such as, What if we did it this way instead? What else can we do to maximise the return on investment? What if XYZ happens—what will we do? What if we don’t do this at all? What if we do give it a try?

The presenter who can move effortlessly through the various questions in the 4Mat System is the presenter who will elegantly address the needs of their entire audience and be more likely to achieve results.

Do you always have to address the four questions in the 4Mat System in the same order?

Yes, you should answer the questions in the order presented here:

1. Why?

2. What?

3. How?

4. What if? or What else?

I think you will find this model to be common sense.


Happy presenting!


Related: Why follow a presentation formula? Because it works!

The benefits of structuring presentations using this audience-focused model There are lots of benefits to using the four questions that form the basis of the 4Mat System. I’ll list them for you:

1. It makes you think about the needs of your audience.

2.It is much more thorough than just covering the part of the message that you find interesting — which, sadly, is what most people do.

3. It doesn’t assume the audience wants to be there: it assumes you have some work to do to shift them, which is a realistic approach to your business presentations.

4. It’s simple. There are only four questions to answer.

5. It feels like common sense when you learn it, so it is logical and easy to remember and use.


Where you can use the questions from the 4Mat System in your life?

There are so many applications for this model in your life. I’ll list these for you:

Formal presentations. To groups of any size.

To set up meetings. For example: ‘This is why we are here; this is what we are going to cover; this is how we’re going to do it; and here are the consequences of sticking or not sticking to our rules.’

Impromptu presentations. For example, you are in a meeting and someone asks you a question and you had no idea you were going to be called upon in the meeting to discuss this subject. Or have you ever been in a team meeting where someone asked you a question and you bumbled your way through the answer only to curse yourself afterwards saying, ‘I wish I had said this or that!’? If you answer by using the four questions, you will look like you have been prepared to answer that question all your life!

Training programs. Each module of a training program should answer all four questions of the model.

Coaching. To explain procedures and processes to staff.

Job interviews. To ask and answer questions. 

Emails. Of course!

Proposals and board papers. Consider writing the executive summary so it addresses the four questions. You can also write the body of your paper using the four questions.

Informal, team meeting–style presentations. These are the informal huddles that can occur in the workplace without warning or preparation. 

Personal communication. To communicate more clearly with your friends, children or partner. You really can use the four questions from the 4Mat System in so many situations. And, by the way, I firmly believe that the more you address the four questions in your personal communication at home, the easier you will find using them when necessary at work. 

Photo of a girl public speaking in Michelle Bowden's blog about structuring your message effectively in a meeting of conference

I really love this audience-focused model and I recommend you use it when communicating in business.


Happy presenting!

©2024 MICHELLE BOWDEN is an authority on persuasive presenting in business. She’s run her Persuasive Presentation Skills Masterclass over 1000 times for more than 13,000 people over the past 25 years and her name is a synonym for ‘presentation skills’ in Australia.


She’s a multi-million-dollar pitch coach to her client list that reads like a who’s who of international business: banking and finance, IT, pharmaceutical, retail, telecommunications plus many more. Michelle is the creator of the Persuasion Smart Profile®, a world-first psychological assessment tool that reports on your persuasive strengths and weaknesses at work, the best-selling internationally published author of How to Present: the ultimate guide to presenting live and online (Wiley) and How to Persuade: the skills you need to get what you want (Wiley)

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