What are their backgrounds? How much background information about your topic can you assume they bring to the presentation?
Is it to inspire? Are they looking for concrete practical information? Do they want more concepts and theory rather than advice?
What are their expectations of you?
Find out everything you can about the location and logistics of the venue.
Do you have enough time to prepare? What time of the day? If there are other presenters, what is the order (always volunteer to go first or last, by the way). What day of the week? All of this matters.
A word of caution: Though I am emphasizing how important content is, I also am begging you to spare your audience a “data dump.” A data dump — all too common unfortunately — is when a presenter crams too much information into the talk without making the effort to make the information or data applicable to the members of the audience. A data dump also occurs when data and information do not seem to build on the information that came earlier in the presentation. Sometimes it almost seems that the presenter is either showing off, or more likely, is simply afraid that if he does not tell the “whole story” by giving reams of data, the audience will not understand his message.Do not fall into the trap of thinking that in order for your audience to understand anything, you must tell them everything. Which brings us to the idea of simplicity.
If your audience could remember only three things about your presentation,what would you want it to be?
I suggest you start your planning in “analog mode.” That is, rather than diving right into PowerPoint (or Keynote), the best presenters often scratch out their ideas and objectives with a pen and paper. Personally, I use a large whiteboard in my office to sketch out my ideas (when I was at Apple, I had one entire wall turned into a whiteboard!). The whiteboard works for me as I feel uninhibited and freer to be creative. I can also step back (literally) from what I have sketched out and imagine how it might flow logically when PowerPoint is added later. Also, as I write down key points and assemble an outline and structure, I can draw quick ideas for visuals such as charts or photos that will later appear in the PowerPoint. Though you may be using digital technology when you deliver your presentation, the act of speaking and connecting to an audience — to persuade, sell, or inform — is very much analog.
Cliff Atkinson in his 2005 book, “Beyond Bullet Points,” smartly states that starting to create your presentation in PowerPoint before you have your key points and logical flow first worked out (on paper or a white board in my case) is like a movie director hiring actors and starting to film before there is a script in hand.
More on “planning analog”
I usually use a legal pad and pen (or a whiteboard if there is enough space) to create a rough kind of storyboard. I find the analog approach stimulates my creativity a bit more as I said. No software to get in my way and I can easily see how the flow will go. I draw sample images that I can use to support a particular point, say, a pie chart here, a photo there, perhaps a line graph in this section and so on. You may be thinking that this is a waste of time: why not just go into PowerPoint and create your images there so you do not have to do it twice? Well, the fact is, if I tried to create a storyboard in PowerPoint, it would actually take longer as I would constantly have to go from normal view to slide sorter view to see the “whole picture.” The analog approach (paper or whiteboard) to sketch out my ideas and create a rough storyboard really helps solidify and simplify my message in my own head. I then have a far easier time laying out those ideas in PowerPoint. I usually do not even have to look at the whiteboard or legal pad when I am in PowerPoint, because the analog process alone gave a clear visual image of how I want the content to flow. I glance at my notes to remind me of what visuals I thought of using at certain points and then go to iStockphoto.com or to my own extensive library of high-quality stock images to find the perfect image.
Check the clarity of your message with the elevator test. This exercise forces you to “sell” your message in 30-45 seconds. Imagine this is the situation: You have been scheduled to pitch a new idea to the head of product marketing at your company, one of the leading technology manufactures in the world. Both schedules and budgets are tight; this is an extremely important opportunity for you if you are to succeed at getting the OK from the executive team. When you arrive at the Admin desk outside the vice-president’s office, suddenly she comes out with her coat and briefcase in hand and barks, “…sorry, something’s come up, give me your pitch as we go down to the lobby…” Imagine such a scenario. Could you sell your idea in the elevator ride and a walk to the parking lot? Sure, the scenario is unlikely, but possible. What is very possible, however, is for you to be asked without notice to shorten your talk down, from, say, 20 minutes, to 10 minutes (or from a scheduled one hour to 30 minutes), could you do it? True, you may never have to, but practicing what you might do in such a case forces you to get your message down and make your overall content tighter and clearer.
Author, Ron Hoff (“I Can See You Naked”) reminds us that your presentation should be able to pass the David Belasco test while you’re in the planning stages. David Belasco was a producer who insisted that the core idea for every successful play he produced could be written as a simple sentence on the back of a business card. Try it. Can you crystallize the essence of your presentation content and write it on the back of a business card? If the task is impossible for you, then you may want to think again and get your message down pat in your mind. This too is certainly something you do before you ever begin to open up PowerPoint (Keynote).
In addition, it is useful to think of your entire 30 minute presentation as an opportunity to “tell a story.” Good stories have interesting, clear beginnings, provocative, engaging content in the middle, and a clear, logical conclusion. I have seen pretty good (though not great) presentations that had very average delivery and average graphics, but were relatively effective because the speaker told relevant stories in a clear, concise manner to support his points. Rambling streams of consciousness will not get it done; audiences need to hear (and see) your points illustrated.