Preparing a successful presentation

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Being able to give good presentations is a key element in a business professional’s career. There is no such thing as a naturally good presenter, some people might be more natural speaking in front of other people, but presenting well takes time and effort. No one can deliver a successful presentation ill-prepared.

In the coming two blog posts I will share some useful tips on how you can improve your presentation skills. This first article is about preparing a successful presentation and the second article will be about how to deliver a successful presentation.

1. Start early with collecting information

The first rule is to start preparing for the presentation early. Don’t wait until the night before the presentation and then put together some PowerPoint slides in the last minute. You’re wasting your time creating slides if you don’t have relevant data. As soon as you find out that you are going to give a presentation start collecting data. The first thing you need to know is who your audience is.

Gather information about the audience

  • Why are they there?
  • What are their expectations?
  • How much do they know about the topic you will be presenting?
  • How big will the audience likely be?

If you are speaking at an event, ask the event organizers about previous events, the typical profile of the audience etc. Secondly, start collecting data about your topic.

Gather information about your topic
Again, as soon as you know that you are presenting start collecting data about your topic. Save articles from magazines, use a screen clipping tool and copy online articles, ask people for feedback, do surveys, analyze statistical data in Excel, review previous talks or presentations that you or others have done on the same topic. You can collect this data in a number of ways. Personally, I like using Microsoft OneNote which is like a digital notebook to save unorganized pieces of information. You can print out documents and save them in a binder or folder if you prefer that. Take notes and scribble down your thoughts as you go through the material. Don’t be selective, think of this as a brainstorming session – no thoughts or ideas should be discarded at this stage.

2. Structure and refine your information

When you’re done collecting data, it’s time to start organizing it. If you’ve printed it out you can use a big table or just put papers on the floor. If you’ve collected it in your computer, organize it in different sections of your notebook. Now you can start discarding information that you don’t have time for or that isn’t directly relevant.

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3. Prepare your key message and your outline

When you have refined the data it’s time for the outline – you can do this by putting sticky notes on the wall, index cards on a table or if you prefer writing titles on PowerPoint slides. This is when you get your “big picture” together. What is your key message? What is the number one thing you want the audience to walk away with? Rearrange the notes/cards/slides in an order that makes for the best flow of the presentation, keeping your key message in mind.

4. Create the presentation slides

When you are done with the outline you can start putting the slides together. Here are a few guidelines to follow:

  • Don’t put too much text on each slide. When I did my presentation skills class I learn that 8 rows of text on a slide was maximum, personally I think that is too much, I would limit it to 5.
  • Try to use images and video to engage the audience
  • Make sure to check your spelling – there’s nothing worse than a presentation with spelling mistakes.
  • Use colors with high contrast in your slides, i.e. dark background color with light text, or a light background color with dark text. Avoid red and green since these colors can be hard to read – especially for people who are color blind.

5. Pick out your attire

Pick out your attire a few days before the presentation so that if there is a stain on your clothing you have time to dry clean it. Pick clothes that are comfortable (that you can easily walk around in) but that are still professionally elegant. You want to stand out in a stylish manner. If you are a lady wearing high heels or a tight skirt – make sure that you can walk properly (some stages have high steps you need to climb) or choose something else to wear. Keep your clothing simple and minimize jewelry. If you’ve bought new clothes for the occasion, try them on at home before the presentation to make sure you feel comfortable in them. There’s a great Career Tools podcast called “Presentation Attire” that goes in to this topic in more detail that I warmly recommend.

6. Practice

The final step is to practice, practice, practice. By practicing I don’t mean sit in the sofa and read through the slides in your head. No, I mean stand up and deliver the presentation like you would on the actual day. Ideally, invite someone to listen to you, or record the presentation with a video camera. If you’re all alone and you don’t have a camera – stand in front of the mirror and speak out loud. Things sound very differently when you say them out loud. When I first joined Microsoft my manager called me in for a “dry run” before my first presentation. I had no idea what it was. She asked me to present to her like I would in front of the customer – exactly, word by word. I thought it was a nightmare, but of course, it was extremely useful. So, always do a dry run before a live audience. For best result, rehearse the entire presentation in the attire you’ve selected, in the room or auditorium the presentation is going to be at. If you nail it then – you are ready!

(If you have difficulties reading this article, you can access the full article in pdf here)