Creating a presentation? 3 things you must do first

“When you’re creating a presentation, what’s the first thing you do? Do you fire up your last presentation?” Whenever I put this question to the participants in Zoomly’s ‘How to write presentations’ workshop, there are a few expressions of ‘yup, that’s me’. And right there is a tip to take away and apply. There’s a huge risk to taking this easy route (of which more later) – and three questions that must be answered before you go anywhere near the software.

Q1. Who’s the audience?
Chances are, the audience for your next presentation will have a different cast of characters than your last one. It’s vital to take some time to consider who you’re presenting to. I recommend creating a pen portrait of your audience, using anything but a slide to visualise them. You can try a Mind Map, a Post-It flurry, or a mood board – or all three, whatever works for you. Best not to do cartoons though… Use these prompts to compose your portrait:

  • How well do you know them – and how well do they know you?
  • How many of them will be attending?
  • How formal or informal are they?
  • Do they enjoy interaction, getting involved in the presentation as it develops, or do they prefer to sit and listen all the way through?
  • Will the key decision makers be in the meeting?
  • How hierarchical are they? Does everyone get a say?
  • What are their expectations?
  • Whose opinions do they respect?
  • How do they make decisions?
  • What works well with these people?

Q2. What kind of meeting is this presentation needed for?
There’s a world of difference between an informal ‘chemistry’ meeting with a potential new client and a debrief on a major research study you’ve commissioned for them. The former may not need any slides at all, but the latter will probably need several.

  • Is this a routine presentation that takes place regularly?
  • Are multiple stakeholders involved in this meeting?
  • What’s at stake in this presentation?
  • Is this meeting one of several stages?
  • Does an agreement or contract need to be negotiated?
  • Is the meeting to discuss time? Or money? Or quality?
  • What aspects of the presentation will be new to the audience?
  • How long is this meeting expected to take?
  • Where will the meeting take place – face to face, online, or hybrid?

Q3. What needs to have happened by the end of the presentation?
If you’re creating a presentation to share a routine update, you’re probably aiming for everyone present to agree next steps, who’s doing what and by when. If your presentation is to present your firm’s credentials, you’re likely to seek agreement to meet again and discuss a potential project. Any meeting, and any presentation, needs to have clear objectives that consider the audience, type of meeting, and time available.

Only when you’ve got clear answers to these 3 critical questions can you start to create a presentation that will deliver what ‘s needed. Map out your key points and how you’ll support each one. I suggest you do this before opening up your slide app; try writing.

At this point, I recommend staying away from your last presentation, and instead opening up your template. I know a very clever firm that insists on this; it’s enshrined in their employee handbook. Why? Consider yourself lucky if you’ve never learned this the hard way. Ask those who have how it feels on the big day to glance back at your slide and see the wrong name/logo/date/title writ large on the screen for all to see.


You may find this blog post useful: 4 alternatives to the ‘hard copy of the deck’ take-away

Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’

Image credits: Hello: @rastudio/DepositPhotos, @magurok5/DepositPhotos, @kloromanam/DepositPhotos

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