The 16 questions you must answer when you prepare a talk or a presentation

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A guide for entrepreneurs and freelancers

In a summit with another 100 speakers it’s hard to get noticed. You need to stand out in a world where conferences are multiplying like crazy, time slots are becoming increasingly short and programs are more and more crammed with talks.

Occasionally you see a unicorn, a great presenter, with a great story and powerful visuals. Oftentimes you linger in the gray zone of the competent, well informed, content rich, but not so good presenters.

Two approaches

In my opinion there are just two ways of approaching a presentation.

You could do your best and hope to get better with time. Your competition may be as good as you, worse than you or way better. You start from your level and by learning one small thing at each conference you may get better in time. Your competition may be on a similar journey and reach and overtake your level at any time.

Either that or you could study really hard. This is where it gets interesting for me and where I can provide you with a ton of value.

Oh, did you just disconnect when you read the words “study really hard”? Yes, you’re busy. Yes, you may even have some nice presentation books somewhere at home or at the office. You may have been reading some Godin, some Presentation Zen, you may know that Nancy Duarte exists (and kicks ass). You may even know of this or that coach, of a good webinar. But you just haven’t got the time for all that. Right: you need to focus on product, team, growth. You need to find investors. No time to improve your presentation skills.

sell courses so I will tell you that the best thing you can do is train. But I sense that maybe you would prefer to have something quick and dirty. Maybe a checklist that you can go through.

All right: just because you’re so nice, here is a list of 16 questions that you can ask yourself to make it look like you studied really hard. Yes, it’s called cheating, and I’m your partner in crime today.

That feeling

Before we go to the 16 questions, allow me to go visit your mind for a second. You and I need to look together at what happens in your brain when you get the news that you are going to be presenting.

Ready? The first thing that happens has nothing to do with business. You are a serious, talented professional, but you are still a human being. This is why at the beginning of your presentation process there is a feeling. A feeling that you know all too well. It can be summarized with the same “Oh, shit!” that you used to say to yourself when your teacher called you to speak in front of class.

Yes, even though you are a grown up now, you still feel like you have been called by the teacher. Even if a meeting with X Fund or talking a Y Conference is a great opportunity, you still fear it and – instinctively – resist it. That’s fine. Let’s embrace the fear and move on.

What to talk about

When this first sensation subsides you are tasked with resolving an initial conflict:

  • on one hand as an business person you know exactly what you want to pitch: your latest product, your offering, your strategy, the way of the future!
  • on the other hand you remember the last time that you were in the audience when someone was just pitching/pitching/pitching. You don’t want to bore the eyeballs out of the orbits of our audience.

Now you know that you need to find an angle, you need to figure out: “what am I gonna talk about?”

This usually leads to desperation and hope that – while showering the day before the talk – you will get some sort of insight about what to talk about.

It’s doesn’t need to be that way. Whenever you need to give a presentation all you need is this process made of 16 questions. Once you answer them you are all set to give your presentation.

1. Who is my audience?

Think long and hard about your audience. If you don’t know them well and they are a limited number spend some time researching information about them. If the audience will be comprised of many people create a “persona” of the typical audience member. Try to understand what are their stakes. Why are they invited to the meeting? What are they trying to get from the day?

Yes. I am saying that you should, first of all, think like an audience member. Think about what an audience member would want to receive from a speaker.

Chances are the outcome that they are looking for is not even remotely connected to your goals. This is why you have a lot of work to do. But at least now you know in what direction you should work.

Aligning with the goals of your audience may seem counter-intuitive. But it will help you find a way to package your pitch in such a way that it does not look like a pitch.

Your job is to repackage your content, your ideas and your presentation in order for it to meet both your goals and the goals of your audience. You will need to compromise on the amount of sales speak that you use. And – probably – you will need to find some new, different topic to talk about that will peak the interest of your audience. This new topic will allow you, at the appropriate moment, to shine a light on your product and deliver the pitch.

How do you do that? Let’s get on with the questions to figure it out.

2. What is my audience expecting from me?

Are they even expecting you? Do they even know who you are? Are you the highlight of the event and everyone knows you or are you a peripheral part of a bigger picture.

If your audience has expectations you should now define them and make sure to meet them. If your audience has no expectation then its your chance to define them: the good news is that you can surprise your audience if no expectation is set.

If your audience is expecting you to be a boring corporate drone you could surprise them (and get their benevolence and attention) by giving a short, engaging and fun talk.

If your audience is expecting a dry pitch you could tell them a transformative story rich of useful data and practical takeaways.

If your audience is expecting you to make their day, then you need to work really hard to align your presentation to their expectations.

3. What am I expecting from my audience? What are my desired outcomes?

If you’re there is not just to please an audience: you surely have an outcome in mind. Maybe you want your idea to spread or, more often, you need to sell yourself, your services or a product of yours.

If this is compatible with what the audience expects from you, go ahead and introduce those sales and self promotional elements in your presentation.

But caveat emptor, if your audience will react negatively to any pitch or sale tactic why don’t you use this occasion to establish a rapport that you will exploit at a later stage?

Sometimes the best way to sell is not to sell at all: start by earning the trust, attention and loyalty of the audience. You can end your presentation on a call to action that is only loosely related to your desired outcome. If you want them to buy your product why don’t you offer to send them your ebook in exchange of their email address? If you already have their contacts why don’t you leave them wanting more of you: the first meeting has been about education, in the next one you will have more of your pitch.

4. What language and visual style is my audience expecting?

You know your audience better and you have established what they want from you, and you from them. Now it’s time to define what language and visual style you should use to best communicate with them.

Do you know their lingo? Can you integrate in your language some elements that are familiar to them? Do you want to – strategically – sound distant from their world by using a different vocabulary?

There are many possible strategies: it’s important that you think about your talk as a unit, made of different components. The components are: your style, your language, your slides. These should meld together in a coherent way.

If you are going to be presenting with the help of slides take a moment to imagine what visual style will look best in the eyes of your audience. The presentation is about you/your product, but is for them.

Try to look at your material with their eyes and ears. Align not only with their expectations about content, but also with their visual expectations.

5. What is my core message?

Defining the core message should be easier now that you know what your audience wants: it must include something coming from your knowledge and experience. This “something” should be useful for your audience to reach their goal and also for you to reach your desired outcome.

Try to remember some of the last talks and presentations you listened to. You probably can define them with very short sentences like: Dana presented the Q1 forecast that does not look as bad as everyone expected. Or Larry, the expert in email marketing, talked about the importance of drip campaigns.

These are core message: you should be able to write yours down in a simple and short sentence.

Take your time to brainstorm possible core messages. After listening to your talk, they are the one thing that your audience will remember.

6. Why is this core message interesting for my audience?

If you brainstormed core messages, chances are you now have more than one. How do you narrow down to the one core message your are going to provide in your presentation?

Look at the core messages you have. You probably have a bunch of core messages that are perfectly aligned with your desired outcome but don’t look so appealing to your audience. And you could also have a number of core messages that are exactly what your audience expects, but that don’t allow you enough maneuvering space to include your pitch.

Your way is in the middle of those two groups. Look for the core messages that align with both your outcomes and the goals of your audience. But if you fail to find one, go for the one that better meets the expectations of your audience.

This is the safe bet when it comes to the core message of your talk.

7. What is the best medium for my core message to come through?

Does your audience really want a PowerPoint presentation  from you? Would you be better off by talking without the help of slides and, maybe, providing a short memo to the attendees?

Whenever it’s allowed by the “etiquette” of your target audience, think about talking without slides or using just 2 or 3 slides that help you make a specific point.

You could also have just a few slides with the main topics of your speech, that set the pace for the different sections of your talk.

Don’t default to making a slide show.

8. What gifts can I give?

I am not talking about materials objects or even discounts or coupons. But more important things like tips, techniques and actionable to-do’s. Stuff that remains with the audience, that your audience can repeat every day.

What I am saying is: your talk happens, and then?

Well if your core message was strong it could be remembered. But wouldn’t it be better if your audience changed their behavior integrating some of your knowledge and ideas in their daily lives?

Do you think it’s far fetched? At the end of most presentations you can provide something actionable. This works not only to fixate the presentation in the memory of your audience, but also serves as a nudge to change their everyday habits.

I am sure that we all have a book we can suggest, a useful practical shortcut, a theory that can be put into practice following steps 1 through 5.

Give gifts: you’ll be remembered.

9. How many slides?

You should not have more than 1 slide per minute of talk, unless you are a super skillful presenter and your visuals kick some serious ass. So a 15 minutes presentation should average 15 slides where you have around 60 seconds per slide.

You can occasionally break this rule, but at the beginning of your public speaking career try to err on the safe side and go for less slides.

10. How much text?

If you are going to present a deck make sure to have the least possible amount of text. Follow these rules:

Optimize text for whoever is sitting in the last row: text size should be 30 points minimum, anything smaller will be unreadable in many settings so avoid small text. If your font looks huge on your computer, then you have achieved the right size for a projected presentation.

No lists: each concept should have its own slide. And don’t ever use a bullet point. Those are banned. Right!?

Only in case you are preparing a handout that you are not going to display on screen, go for longer text.

11. What template should I use?

My suggestion for you is to start from scratch as many times as possible. Drop the defaults. Kick the logos off the slides and focus on your message.

Would it come through better with beautiful typography or great images? Can you draw? Do you have illustrations ready? Look at your assets but don’t let you get locked in by any predefined template.

One word of advice: once you choose a template, stick to it.

12. What visuals should I use?

Only use the visuals that will have the best possible impact with your audience. Think about what they like, what they would appreciate, what they are familiar with.

Your taste should be put to use to decorate your house, not your slides. Remember: your presentation may be about you, but is for your audience.

13. Should I rehearse?

Yes! Nobody is great at a presentation that has not been rehearsed. And you will not loose your spontaneity if you spend some time acting out your presentation.

If you can, record your trials and listen to them to optimize your output.

14. Should I memorize my talk?

Not necessarily. But you should have the sequence clear in your memory.

You should always know by heart what slide comes next, how to transition to it. Memorize the key “junctions” of your discourse. This will also boost your confidence on stage and allow to present without slides in case something technical goes wrong.

15. How much time should I devote to the task overall?

You should allot time for:

  • thinking through your presentation;
  • structuring it;
  • designing it;
  • rehearsing it.

This means that you have to start way in advance, much earlier than you think. Only if you will be presenting current data that would become stale, you are allowed to put together your materials closer your deadline.

16. How should I plan for all this?

Now its time to start working. Put the conference dates on your calendar and plan the time you need to think, structure, design and rehearse your presentation. Make sure to budget the time according to your abilities. Don’t overestimate your ability to prepare everything at the last minute.

Going from fear to a successful presentation can require time, but is a wonderful journey that will have you sweating on structure and story, have you impersonate your audience and align your goals with theirs. In the process you will better understand them, and your self as well.

Let me end on a high note: the fact that you are addressing the problem of becoming a better presenter is already sign that you can become one. The fact that you are reading this article gives me great promise in your growth. You see, 99% of your peers and colleagues don’t even think that presentations can be a great way to communicate, engage, inform and move to action. You do and you have an advantage over them.

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