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The 4 Most Important Steps When Preparing Your Speech

Preparing presentation in notebook
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Preparation is the key to a good speech or presentation

The best speeches and presentations – the ones that are delivered effortlessly; the ones that we remember; the ones that make an impact  – are usually the result of thorough and careful preparation.

An iceberg is an excellent metaphor for a good speech or presentation. Most of an iceberg lies under water. Thus, we have the expression, “the tip of the iceberg”. The speech or presentation is like the tip of an iceberg because that is what the audience sees. What the audience doesn’t see – the preparation – is like part of the iceberg beneath the water.

In an ideal world, we would have days or even weeks to focus on an important speech or presentation. But we live in the real world. Time is often short and we have many obligations. Nevertheless, you owe it to your audience to give a speech or presentation that is worthy of their time.

With that in mind, I would like to share with you a simple, but powerful, four-step exercise that I do every time I have a speech or presentation. The exercise usually takes between 25 and 45 minutes. It is time well spent because, at the end of it, you should be much clearer about the things that you will cover in your talk.

 

Before you begin

Before you begin the exercise, you have to do something that might seem counterintuitive: turn off the computer. Yes, you read that correctly.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not a Luddite. I love technology. I have a Smartphone, tablet and laptop. I have helped develop an app and use a Fitbit. I am active on social media and fairly up to date with the latest trends in the tech world. But the computer is a tool, and like any tool, it has to be used for the right job at the right time in the right way.

Too many people make the mistake of firing up PowerPoint or Keynote or Prezi and adding slide after slide full of details. You have to resist that temptation and take a step backwards to get some perspective on your speech or presentation.

Alan Kay, the renowned American computer scientist said it well:

If you have the ideas, you can do a lot without machinery. Once you have those ideas, the machinery starts working for you. … Most ideas you can do pretty darn well with a stick in the sand.

This exercise is all about getting the ideas right. So put away the computer and get some good old-fashioned paper and a pencil or pen.

 

Step 1 – Have “eagle vision”

An eagle’s eye is a marvel of nature, up to eight times more powerful than a human eye. As it flies, an eagle can survey a large amount of territory. It can spot a rabbit or fish at a distance of up to three kilometres and when it does, it can keep that prey in perfect focus as it swoops in to catch it.

As a speaker, you can do the same thing – metaphorically – as you prepare for your talk.

There are three cornerstones to any speech or presentation: the speaker; the subject; and the audience. On a sheet of paper, make a large triangle (Δ). At the top, write your name; at the bottom left, the name of the audience; and at the bottom right, the subject of your speech or presentation.

Now, think about the relationships between the three cornerstones and write a few notes along the sides of the triangle about each. For example:

Speaker – Subject: What do you know about the subject? Why are you speaking about it? What expertise do you have? What insights can you share with the audience? Etc.

Audience – Subject: What does the audience know about the subject? Do they like the subject? Are they afraid of it? Are they bored by it? How is the subject relevant for the audience? Etc.

Speaker – Audience: What do you know about the audience? What do they know about you? Do you have authority over them? Do they have authority over you? Etc.

Once you have made your notes, you need to need to think about the speaking situation and how it might affect your analysis above. Just as the weather can change from day to day, so too the speaking situation can change for a speaker or an audience.

For example, imagine a CEO who has to give a speech at the company’s annual shareholders meeting. In Year 1, the company has had a great year. Profits are up, the company is gaining market share and the stock price has doubled. In Year 2, the company has had a terrible year. The new product was a disaster, the company has lost market share and the stock prices has tumbled. Same speaker, same audience, same subject. Very different situations.

Here are some questions to ask when thinking about the speaking situation:

Are these good times? Tough times? How does the situation affect the subject of the presentation, if at all? Will the situation affect your delivery? What will happen – for you and the audience – if the presentation goes well? What will happen if it goes poorly? Etc.

As you think about these questions, review the notes that you made and add or amend them as necessary.

The purpose of this first step is to get as clear a picture as possible of the key components of your talk. Like an eagle, you want a broad vision of the landscape before narrowing your focus on your target.

 

Step 2 – Define your objective

At the end of your speech or presentation, the audience should be changed in some way. What is your objective for the talk? What do you want the audience to do when your talk is over?

Some possible objectives for a business presentation: (a) you want people to invest in a project; (b) you want people to take some action; (c) you want people to be aware of certain information; (d) you want to bring about a change in the company.

Sometimes speakers just want the audience to know something and that is fine. But the most powerful speeches and presentations are the ones that move people to action. If you can get your audience to take some concrete action, you will have made an impact.

When thinking about what you want the audience to do, be specific. Write out the objective as follows: “At the end of the presentation, I want the audience to                                    .”

There are countless objectives that a speech or presentation might have. Give it some thought. Just remember that the objective should be clear and realistic. Audiences need to know what, precisely, they have to do, and they have to be able to do it.

 

Step 3­ – What is your key message?

A speech or presentation should be built around a key message. It is fine to have more than one key message, but I would only have two or three at most. The more messages you have, the more complicated your talk will be; the more complicated the talk, the less likely it is that people will remember it.

Too often, a presentation rambles along, leaving the audience confused as to what the point was. Very often, this is because the speaker has not thought clearly about the message and so did not construct a coherent talk.

Think about what you want the audience to remember even if they forget everything else that you have said. Then, write your entire presentation in one or two complete sentences. Not bullet points! The purpose of this step is to help you get to the heart of what you want to say.

When you can condense your speech or presentation into a single sentence or two, the message is clear in your mind. Then, when it comes to building your talk, as you think about adding a slide, a statistic, a story, a chart, a graph, etc., ask yourself whether it supports the key message. If it does, it can stay. If it doesn’t, you might want to save it for another talk.

 

Step 4­ – Why should the audience care?

A speech or presentation is never about the speaker or her product or service or company. It is always about the audience. When speakers put the audience first, that’s when great things can happen with a speech or presentation.

The final step of the exercise is to be clear about why your audience should care about your key message? Why is it important for them? List the reasons. If you can’t think of any, you have a problem. Either you are giving the wrong talk to this audience or you are speaking to the wrong audience. But if you know the reasons why the audience should care, you have the basis for a meaningful speech or presentation.

In this regard, it’s worth remembering the humorous, but insightful, comment of the late Ken Haemer, former Manager of Presentation Research at AT&T:

Designing a presentation without an audience in mind is like writing a love letter and addressing it: “To Whom It May Concern.”

 

Conclusion

Even if you do not have a lot of time to prepare a speech or presentation, the foregoing exercise will help you clarify your ideas about your talk. Ultimately, this will save you time as you design it and will help you deliver a message that is clear, memorable and relevant for your audience.

John Zimmer
John Zimmer is an international speaker, trainer and lawyer. He has worked at a major Canadian law firm, the United Nations, the World Health Organization and is now a full-time speaker. A seven-time European Champion of speech contests, John writes an internationally recognized blog about public speaking, Manner of Speaking. He is also the co-creator of Rhetoric – The Public Speaking Game™.
John Zimmer
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