How to choose the best format for your presentation

Animated speaker in front of small group

You’ve been asked to plan and present at an upcoming conference. This is an exciting opportunity. Someone has placed their trust in you, and has enough faith in your knowledge to put you in charge of leading an important conversation.

In some instances, the organizer will ask you to present in a specific way. But other times, you’ll be allowed to choose. If that’s the case, how do you choose the right presentation format to convey your information?

Below, I’ve outlined four different presentation formats for you to choose from, with pros and cons for each. As you make your decision, remember to keep these four factors in mind:

  • Desired outcome: What’s the ultimate purpose? Is it solely to spread knowledge, or are you also hoping to work together to create new ideas and solutions?
  • Length of the presentation: There’s a big difference between 20 minutes and 60 when it comes to planning content, delivering it, and keeping the audience’s attention.
  • Your level of expertise: If you’re the sole presenter, you need to be an expert.
  • Size of the audience: Is this just for your department or an auditorium full of people?


Expert lecture

A perfect example of an expert lecture presentation is a TED Talk. You’re the star of the show, and your job is to tell a story (or a series of stories) that shares information, lessons learned, and advice.

But remember: Lecture formats do not bode well after a certain amount of time. No one wants to listen to one person drone on non-stop for the better part of an hour (or longer). In fact, the desired length hovers right around 18 minutes. Beyond that, your audience will start zoning out. If your allotted time is longer than that, you probably want to choose a different format.

  • You can plan the entire presentation, including flow, talking points, and relevant media
  • The conversation is unlikely to get hijacked by questions or colloquial tangents
  • You’re less likely to be caught off guard or be put on the spot
  • You need to have a high-level of knowledge about what you’re talking about
  • It’s up to you—and you only—to plan an engaging presentation
  • The audience only gets one perspective
  • There is limited opportunity for audience interaction

Panel discussion

With a panel discussion, you generally have two to five panelists who are experts in the topic. A panel moderator will drive the conversation, ask thought-provoking questions, and ensure each panelist gets adequate speaking time. This format is a great choice if you have a complicated or in-depth topic to explore and a good deal of time to fill.

  • The audience gets to hear multiple viewpoints
  • You are in control of the conversation but don’t have to know all the answers
  • There’s more opportunity for audience interaction
  • Coordination; you have to recruit, schedule, and possibly lodge panelists
  • Moderating takes a good deal of research (on the topic and speakers) and preparation
  • Panelist dynamics are unpredictable; if they’re bad, the whole session could be tense

Fireside chat

Fireside chats are similar to panel discussions, but more casual. Typically, there are two or three people sitting side by side. The intended effect is to make the guest feel comfortable enough to open up and share stories from their life, as well as insight on an array of topics.

  • For the most part, you control where the conversation goes
  • You can get more in-depth with this one person and explore
  • You don’t have to be the expert
  • The success of this format is reliant upon the guest speaker being willing to open up
  • There’s some extra coordination involved here, but not as much as with a panel
  • You need to do fairly extensive research in order to ask captivating questions
  • You don’t have as many viewpoints as a panel discussion

Roundtable discussion

If the desired outcome of your presentation is knowledge sharing, collaboration, and idea generation, a roundtable discussion is a great fit. If you have 12 or less attendees, you can all participate in the same discussion. If there are more, you can break into smaller groups and provide each group with the same question set.

The hope is that each group member will participate equally, sharing their experience and asking their group mates questions. However, though you can have multiple groups, this format doesn’t really make sense for larger audiences, and the location is key, as everyone in a group needs to be able to see each other.

  • Everyone has an equal chance to participate
  • Attendees get to hear multiple perspectives
  • Attendees can collaborate together and get feedback on ideas
  • As with the panel and fireside chat, you don’t have to be the expert
  • Someone might dominate the conversation
  • If you have multiple groups, it’s harder to keep the different conversations on track
  • Seating arrangement is a limiting factor

Being able to choose your own presentation format allows you the flexibility to choose the best fit. When deciding, make sure to consider your end goal, the potential number of attendees, and how comfortable you feel with the topic at hand.

No matter which format you choose, Poll Everywhere makes live audience feedback easy and efficient. Hear from the entire room in the time it would take one person to respond aloud.