Preparing Your Presentation for Delivery-Four Simple Questions

Imagine that you have an important presentation next week. You may not have to imagine – you probably do have an important presentation coming up soon. You want to make a good impression. No, you want to make a great impression. So you get started right away. What do you want to say? What is the message you want to deliver to the particular audience? As soon as you decide your message, you can start outlining and drafting, right? Whoa! Stop!

You need to back up a few steps if you really want to deliver your message to this particular audience. Delivering a message is like delivering a very important package. It's not enough to get the package ready to send. It's more important than even sending the package. Delivery means taking the steps necessary to assure that the package is received by the correct party exactly as you sent it. Anything short of that and your package is not delivered.

Preparing a presentation for delivery involves answering four simple but exacting questions.

First, who is the specific audience?

Second, what do you want this audience to do?

Third, what resources and obstacles will affect my presentation?

Finally, (and only after the first three are answered) what is my message and method?


I. Who is my specific audience?

The audience may be obvious, but not always. In fact, there may be more than one audience. Sometimes only a part of the apparent audience is relevant to your objectives. The potential audiences may be:

  • the apparent audience (all those sitting in front of you)
  • a part of or a key person in the apparent audience
  • others who will see this presentation (e.g. television or video-tape audience); or 
  • someone the present audience will be reporting to (e.g. a principal, client, or higher authority).
  • You need to know the audience well. Her are some of the key information points you will need to know (or must find out) about your audience.

  • Who are they? Get a profile of their background including such factors as their education, professional or occupational status, gender, age, experience level, etc.
  • How many are in the audience?
  • How much do they know (or think they know) about your topic? 
  • What preconceived ideas and/or predispositions does this audience have?
  • What is more likely to influence this audience: logic, facts or emotion? Or will all play a significant role?
  • What learning/listening styles are more natural to this audience? What styles may they be resistant to?
  • What do they know (or think they know) about you? What assumptions do they hold about the category of person you fall into?
  • Why are they (potentially) listening to you? Why are they here? Are they here voluntarily?
  • What (if anything) do they want and/or need from you?
  • What environmental factors may affect their receptivity? [See Resource/Obstacle discussion below].

Gaining this information will require preparation, research and ongoing awareness of cues that can be drawn from the audiences and the speaking occasion. There are many research tools that are available. Consider using Google or some other web–based search vehicle. But, also ask questions of prospective audience members and others who may know this audience better than you do.


II. What do I want this audience to do?

Start by deciding the general purpose of this presentation. The purpose of presentations is likely to be one of the following:

  • Inform/teach/train
  • Motivate/stimulate/inspire
  • Persuade/sell/impress
  • Negotiate/debate
  • Entertain/amuse

More importantly, what specifically do you want this audience to do? This is the crucial question because it determines not only the purpose of the presentation, but directs you to the techniques needed to achieve that purpose. So, you have be crystal clear in your own mind as to what you want this audience to do. A presentation without a clear purpose is not likely to succeed. The package cannot be delivered because essentially there is no package.

Do you want the audience to know specific information or learn a particular skill? Do you want them to take specific action (vote a certain way, hire you, change a particular behavior)? Do you want them to sign an agreement on specific terms or agree with your position on a particular matter?

Develop an objective for your presentation that is:

  • attainable;
  • specific; and
  • written.

Writing out your specific objective for this presentation is an essential communication discipline. It clarifies your objective by committing you to intentionality and specificity. It will also serve as a useful reference through the remainder of the preparation process. Remember that your objective is what you want the audience to do as a result of your presentation. Your objective should not be confused with your message or your method. Before you decide what your message will be and the method for achieving it, you have one more question to ask.


III. What resources and obstacles will affect my presentation?

In a negotiation, leverage is a compelling influence that can be positive or negative. In public speaking, resources are the equivalent of positive leverage and obstacles are the equivalent of negative leverage. To maximize the prospects of a successful presentation, you must assess the existing balance of leverage and act to positively adjust the balance in your favor wherever you can by exploiting or create positive leverage and diminishing or eliminating negative leverage.

There are many potential resource and obstacle aspects to consider including the following.

  1. The audience [See Discussion Above]
  2. Natural connectors to the audience.

Sometimes we have "natural connectors" that establish an immediate bond with the audience. Some examples of natural connectors are a speaker who:

  • are accepted as an authority;
  • exude enthusiasm;
  • are seen as genuine and sincere;
  • make people laugh;
  • are someone whose plight the audience is sympathetic to;
  • are celebrities of some kind; or
  • the audience accepts as "one of our own" (identification).

A natural connector is a presumption of credibility, albeit a reversible one. It makes getting a favorable response easier—probably much easier. If you have a natural connection with an audience (and we almost always have at least one available), you want to know that and use it in your presentation. In some situations, you may have more than one—you may be an enthusiastic and funny authority. One other natural connector: Most audiences have an incentive and often an emotional investment in wanting the speaker to succeed in the task of making their presentation. More on this later, but this is another natural connector that we should not forget.

But do be careful. Don't abuse these connectors. Don't overly rely on them, especially in a way that becomes apparent to the audience ("This guy is a real expert—He just told us for the fifth time!") Also, it never works to fake a natural connector to an audience. They will smell it, feel fooled, and brand that person as a fake. When they do, the audience will punish you (and I say good for them). So, don't fake a connection to any audience. Reference it or claim it carefully and always honestly. Finally each of the characteristics that form natural connectors have opposites. They are like "evil twins" (insincerity, boring, arrogance, a clear lack of expertise). Unfortunately, many who possess these "darker" characteristics are the last to know. The best defense is to have someone who has your permission to be honest enough to tell you if this is a problem.


3. The physical setting

Cagle's Constant:

"Always do a site check before every presentation."

Sometimes this may be difficult, such as when you are speaking at a remote location. In those cases, call the management of the location and ask about the details. Do show up at least 30–60 minutes early to "site check". This allows time to: (1) make changes; (2) envision how you will use the room and its resources and obstacles; and (3) to mentally and physically prepare if you wish. Don't hesitate to ask for special accommodations that relate to making the best presentation to your audience.

A checklist of factors you will want to preview in your "site check":

  • The availability of a lectern including its height, location, and available space for notes and other props or needed materials;
  • Whether you will be speaking from a raised stage and who else may be on the stage during your presentation;
  • The sound system (especially limits imposed by any microphone);
  • The availability, working order, and location of other needed equipment, such as easels, overhead projector, etc. (including the availability of needed electrical outlets);
  • The size of the room and how the audience is seated (auditorium, classroom, workshop groups etc.). Pay attention to your own visibility and that of your visuals or props;
  • The quality, placement and direction of lights; if necessary, access to light switches;
  • The presence of potential "distractions" (adjoining rooms, lunch service, Muzak, poor acoustics, windows, etc.);
  • The method for distribution of handout materials; and
  • Whether your presentation will be video-taped. If so, be sure to talk with the video personnel to work out presentation details.

4. Other aspects surrounding the presentation

  • Time constraints (when, how long, time of day, etc).
  • Are you part of a larger program (who else, where on program)
  • Your introduction (pre-program billing, who will introduce you, what they will say. Don't hesitate to take control on this matter, in effect, prepare your own introduction)

5. Your own condition

  • Are you substantively prepared?
  • Are you physically healthy and ready to perform?
  • Are you mentally alert?
  • Are you nervous/ anxious/ panicked?
  • Are you energized or "psyched?" Do you feel ready/eager to speak NOW?
  • Have you done your own personal "equipment check?" Do you have ready your notes, text, props and visuals, handout materials, wristwatch, handkerchief, throat lozenges, or whatever you need to get the job done with excellence?

IV. What is my message and my method?

In the well-prepared presentation, you should reserve judgment about "your message" until you have answered the three questions set out above. Only then are you sufficiently informed, equipped, and ready to craft the best message and choose the best method to achieve your objective of getting this audience to know, think, or act as you want them to.

Drafting your message

There is no one way to prepare a speech. With such a variety of public speaking situations, no one method could serve them all. But, all effective communications have at least one thing in common—a central message. It is the essence of what you mean to communicate. It is why you are speaking. It is more than the words you use, but the ideas the words convey that will move your audience to your purpose. Done well, the central message you intend will match what your audience hears and acts on.

Use the business card technique. I get my central message "honed down" by using one of my business cards. A standard business card measures 2" X 3 ½", so it's pretty small! On the back, I write out the central message of my presentation. This small space demands that I get down to the heart of the matter. It is not always easy and I often find myself making refinements. Sometimes, I find myself needing to make some fundamental changes ("What was I thinking about?"). I usually use a pencil (just keeping my options open). Sometimes shortly before my presentation, I look at the card and ask myself: "Is this my message?" When I am confident the answer is "Yes", I transcribe the message one last time—this time in ink. And then I am ready to go and "stay on message." It's also a good reminder to keep in front of me. Sometimes, I can glance at it as a source for my closing. It's always there if I feel I am losing my focus and it's a great text if I get caught short of time and have to sum up all I said in 30 seconds. It's also a great source for the answer to the question "What was the key point of your speech, such as in response to a reporter or someone who has the task of summarizing your speech for a report or trade journal.

Once you determine the central message and reduce it to writing (no small task), you can start building the framework of your presentation.

A strong starting point is to build an outline for the presentation. You may find yourself making a list of points that you want to make and that is fine. But, there are two important things about the points you want to make in any presentation. First, an audience can only absorb so much. Research suggests that the most an audience will absorb and have any chance of retaining is five points. So, always limit yourself to five or fewer main points. Generally, three main points might be a more realistic goal. This will take some discipline and maybe a little humility, but it is essential. Second, at some point your list of (fewer than five) points will have to submit to some form of organization that advances your central message with this particular audience. An outline not only organizes thoughts, but will help assure that the overall message is clear, concise, and complete.

Generally, it is better to organize a speech outline starting with the body of the speech and save the crafting of the opening and closing for later. Selecting the best opening and closing will depend on the central message, the organization of the presentation and the characteristics of the audience.

While preparing the outline, the order in which the main points unfold is an important strategic decision. This involves assessing what the audience will find logical, but may also have an emotional component as well. A particular main point may have to precede another because it is a necessary building block to a later point. The sub-points that support each main point will also require crafting and selection. Sub-points must be organized under the most appropriate major points. Compelling sub-points are important structural elements, but the temptation to overload with sub-points and to be repetitive must be contained. Be clear. Be spare. Tend toward the simple in language and ideas. You will need to build transitions to introduce and connect the main points, some sub-points and to connect the body of the presentation to the opening and closing.

Transitions, which may be nothing more than transition sentences or phrases, are important as "road signs" to direct the audience's attention and thought processes in the direction the speaker wishes to travel. When the body of the speech is complete, it makes sense to once again look back to the central message (remember, you wrote it down) to see if the outline of the unfolding speech remains true to the central message. If not, it calls for an adjustment to either the outline, the central message, or both.

From the outline, you can move toward a written text or to a less formal format which may take the form of topical notes that you can use to remind yourself of content points while delivering your presentation. In both formats, a clearly discernible central message remains a very important ingredient. So, as you move along either path, check back from time to time to check if your unfolding work is staying close to your central message.

Text vs. Notes: Which to use?

Whether to draft a text to be read or to make a less formal delivery built around some form of notes is a decision that is usually based on the setting of your presentation. A written text may be needed if your remarks will be preserved or reported in some published form (presidents don't give informal inaugural addresses). It is also a good practice if being quoted accurately is critical. Some people use written texts as a hedge against nervousness or forgetting something. Working from a written text raises the crucial distinction between words and phrases written to be read and written to be spoken. Your text must capture language and delivery that will sustain an audience's attention, interest and engagement. This makes exploratory rehearsal before an audience essential.  It also will involve marking the text with vocal "cues" (pauses, points of emphasis, etc.) to lend vitality to the reading and using an easily readable typeface and format for the text. Working with notes generally connects better with audiences and is preferred where sounding natural and interesting, and being spontaneous matter. If you go with notes, go with bullet point notes and don't write out long passages of your presentation because reading them will stand out, probably awkwardly. Use note card (4" X 6" is a good format). Print large and legibly. Rehearse and know what your key points are. Use your notes (sometimes just a word or two per topic) as reminders to keep you on course. In both cases, number your pages.

Tapping into your communication resources

Experienced speakers know they have a wealth of resources at their disposal to build their presentation. Some of these tools are specialized for particular jobs. Some are all-purpose tools that can help any presentation. Good speakers, like good mechanics, take care of their tools and are always developing mastery of their use.

Some of the tools available to you as a speaker are:

  • Words—the power of language used well;
  • Your control of your voice and its variations—its ability to project, articulate, rise and fall, and even disappear on cue;
  • Your personality and character—your credibility, organization, knowledge, likability, sincerity, humor, energy, and enthusiasm that connects you to your audience;
  • Your command of ideas and your ability to craft images that present them in clear and thought-provoking ways;
  • Your capacity for non-verbal communications—your ability to occupy and move through physical space in communicative ways including your eyes, gestures, carriage, and proximity;
  • Your ability to read and respond to your audience;
  • Your sense of timing;
  • The availability of a wide range of visual and other technologies to increase the impact of your message (including overheads, slides, film, charts, graphs, audio, computer-generated images, and props);
  • Your capacity for creativity and daring;
  • The limitless data, information, perspectives, and ideas that are readily available to you as resources (especially on the Internet) and your ability to access them;
  • Your common knowledge, common sense, and above all, your true life experiences;
  • Your ability to analyze and, if necessary, modify the physical environment of your presentation; and
  • The wide range of resources to assist in preparing a presentation including video rehearsals, informed critique, books, and observations of other presenters.

Know these tools well. Nurture and care for them. Develop your ability to use them skillfully. Always be on the lookout for new tools. But, more than anything else, put them to use.

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