How to prepare for an important presentation

Most people are really anxious about any form of public speaking. Yet presenting to an audience is not optional for any professional, and it is vital for leaders.  The speaking platform offers you the opportunity to connect and impact people with your message.   It is a chance for you to communicate something important.   It will certainly sharpen your leadership skills. When asked to present an important presentation (and you will),  you will  probably feel simultaneously exhilarated at the possibilities, yet at the same time you will be fighting the fear of speaking in public. This is normal.

Presenter

In the days preceding an important presentation you will have the opportunity to prepare a message that is powerful, relevant and impactful. How do you go about making the most of this time to prepare? My own experience of public speaking has been a series of highs and lows, and after many years both volunteering and being asked to speak I want to share with you the way I personally go about preparing for an important presentation. This might help you when faced with the same situation.

Much of what I describe below is common sense and there are multiple resources on the web to help speakers. I will focus on the critical preparation stage.  If you are well prepared then you will enjoy yourself more, communicate more effectively and come across more professionally.

The audience

The first step is to find out everything you can about the audience. This is arguably the most important exercise in your preparation. You must be able to get inside the audiences head and contribute something of value. An audience is not a homogenous mass, it consists of individuals; some of whom will be open to your message and others who will be distracted, reserved or sceptical.

Before you even speak, each person will have a pre-conceived view of you and how engaged they are in your message. Little of this you can really change ahead of actually speaking.

Therefore it is vital to put yourself in the shoes of as many personas in your audience as you can, and “join the conversation that is already taking place in their head”.

Ask yourself how you can add value. Are people expecting to learn from you, or are they wanting to be entertained? Are they looking for motivation, inspiration or deep reflection? What is their current state of knowledge?

Don’t be intimidated if you feel that the audience knows much more than you; your unique perspective can add value to everyone; provided you remain authentic and share stories from your personal experience and world view. You are after truly unique and no-one really knows what you will say on the day.

Research your audience as much as you can. Are they members of a society, or do they work for the same company? Do a web search for the goals of the society, or research more about the company. Can you find out what challenges they are experiencing?

The program

Look carefully at the program for the day. Are you speaking first, or are you following others? Will people be fresh and alert, or do you have the dreaded “graveyard session” after lunch? Can you compensate for this in your approach using innovative techniques? Can you remember a good speaker in the past that made an impact in the graveyard session? How did they do this?

Ask yourself how you can complement the message of the other speakers? Can you find out more about their topics ahead of time? What is the purpose or theme of the event? Is it a once a year conference, or a monthly interest group?

How big is the audience? Will you be introduced? Does the chairperson know enough about you and what you are going to speak on. The audience will immediately detect if you and the chairperson were not aligned ahead of time, and this could set you back.

Will the style be informal or more formal? Academic or business? Entertaining or informative?

Will you be provided with equipment or do you need to bring your own? Getting to know the venue is important but I will not cover this in this article, except to mention it as something you need to research well.

The subject

Select a subject that meets the needs of the audience. Try to get a clear overview of contemporary thinking in your subject ahead of preparing any of your content. You want to be sure that the specific topic that you pick will be relevant to the audience.

A few days (or weeks if possible) ahead of time start thinking about the subject. I read up a little on the topic, perhaps taking a look at some websites, or reading some abstracts from books on the subjects. A great resource is GetAbstract for relevant and highly condensed articles. Go onto Linked-In and search for forums or discussions about the topic.

The purpose is to understand the current issues in the industry so that you can address this. Make notes if you must, the objective is to learn as much as you can about the subject.

The specific theme

You can’t possibly cover everything in one presentation. My biggest weakness was trying to cover too much at the expense of practical advice and clarity. You therefore need to narrow your chosen subject down to a central theme in your presentation that you can reasonably cover in 45 minutes (or the time allocated).

People respond well to practical, actionable content ahead of theory; but of course this depends too on the audience and your subject.

Given that you know the theme, decide how to optimally blend information, inspiration, entertainment and motivation into your theme. This is a very creative process. I usually think in images so at this stage I am visualising specific pictures or charts I might chose for my supporting slides. But note that I have not used PowerPoint or Keynote yet – this comes much later.

The desired outcome

This is probably the most important aspect of preparing a presentation, and one which I have often neglected at my cost.

You need to be clear on what you want your audience to take away. Practical tips, step by step strategies, motivation to take action? Or possibly you just want the audience to “feel good” about a subject. Be careful with “warm and fuzzy feelings”, it is probably more relevant to a speech at a wedding than a business presentation.

Now, for the first time you might want to write something down. Describe in a short paragraph the synopsis of your presentation. This mini value proposition (sometimes called an “elevator pitch) should describe what problem you hope to solve, and what transformational outcomes you want to achieve by your presentation. It should answer the question “What’s in it for the audience” and the “Why” as succinctly as possible.

Write this synopsis for your presentation before you prepare any slides.  Remember the context.  Are you the CEO presenting a vision, or an external consultant presenting a recommendation?  Are you wanting to thank people, entertain them or educate them?  Are you looking to influence, or challenge?

Then write one question that challenges your audience that you will address in your presentation.

For example:

Are you prepared for the changing world of work in which the average time people spend in a job reduces from 6 to 3 years?

Structuring your presentation

Having done the above you can start preparing the outline of your presentation. I prefer to do this outside of PowerPoint or Keynote, mainly because I tend to get distracted when I start building slides. I usually work better when I have the structure (roadmap) in place.

Start with an overall structure: Here is an example:

  1. Describe the present situation and problems being experienced (the research you did on your customers will be invaluable here).
  2. Amplify the consequences for the individuals in the audience.
  3. Describe the desired future, once the identified problems are solved.
  4. Give an overview of your rationale and what you will cover in the rest of your presentation.
  5. Analyse some of the external trends that are impacting on these problems – are they going to get better or worse and why?
  6. Develop your rationale – you can break this down into sub sections or themes. For each, provide practical recommendations as to how this contributes towards the desired outcome.
  7. Summarise your reasoning in the context of the original problem.
  8. Reinforce the benefits of the desired outcome.
  9. Provide actionable next steps and valuable resources that your audience can use later to implement your recommendations.

Of course the outline above is most suited to a specific type of presentation. You might need to use a different approach. The main point is that once you understand what the purpose of the presentation is, what problem you are solving and the solution you offer, the structure will naturally fall into place.

Develop your slides

Only at this stage should you prepare your slides in Keynote or PowerPoint.

I suggest that you build the slides from the most important to the least important. This is not necessarily the same order in which you will present. This approach will help you to focus on the central theme.

Many poor presentations I have done in the past always started off well but tapered off towards the end because I made the mistake of spending too much time on preparing the first slides (introduction) and too little time on the conclusions.

Mentally rehearse

Work through your slides and mentally deliver the presentation. Memorise the overall structure of your presentation, not the finer points.

Look at the overall presentation and ask yourself whether you can see the golden thread is that runs through it. Will this be clear to the audience?

Be prepared to delete or consolidate half your draft slides. One of my biggest personal weaknesses is my desire to pack too much into 45 minutes. Take the total presentation time and use an average time per slide to calculate how many slides you can afford.

Some presentations can move as quickly as 20 seconds per slide, but these presentations rarely go past 10 minutes and the style is pretty overwhelming to the audience. Most presentations in conferences work on about 3 minutes per slide. Be careful not to overdo it, the audience hates being told that you have run out of time, it makes them feel inferior because you felt the need to slow down for them.

Finalise the graphics and theme of your presentation. Good slide design is important and I recommend you read up on this separately.

Keep the text per slide as simple as possible. It must be possible for you to present without slides; they are there to complement not replace your need to communicate authentically and in-person!

Practice

I have seen CEO’s present off a slide deck prepared by marketing that they perused an hour before their session.  It was clear during the presentation that they had no clue about what was coming next as they paged through slides and read the bullet points.  This damages their reputation and credibility, don’t be like that!

You should work through your whole presentation several times before presenting. If your session is one hour then you need to rehearse at least three full sessions, (i.e. 3 hours dry run) spread over a few days. When rehearsing, remember the structure of your presentation and embed this structure firmly in your memory. It will give you confidence that you will always know where you are when presenting.

Refine your presentation during these sessions – expect to double the time as a result – i.e. you should work for 6 hours for every one hour planned presentation – this after you have finished the slides.

The total time rehearsing may be more or less depending on your experience level, the subject matter, whether or not you have presented on a similar topic before etc.

Enjoy

Finally, remember that being given an opportunity to present to an influential or targeted audience is a privilege. Enjoy the fact that the organisers had confidence in you and that the audience will want you to successfully get your message across.

The actual presentation is a time to really enjoy yourself and derive the value from your preparation. Yes you will be nervous – expect it and know that after the first minute all nervousness usually goes away.

Be authentic and human and your audience will enjoy every word!