How NOT to create a presentation

So you’ve been asked to do a presentation – good for you, particularly if you’re relatively new to this and see the request as a great opportunity to step up. (More experienced? Hang on in there, even you may find some helpful tips here.)

Q: What’s the first thing you’re going to do?

A: Fire up my presentation software and start creating my slides (duh).


Image by Chris Lamphear / Deposit Photos

My advice is to leave your visuals for now, and whatever you do, don’t fire up your presentation software. It’s been my observation and painful experience (having learned this one the hard way) that opening PowerPoint or Keynote or Whatever first of all seems to shut down most of the presenter’s brain. We go into some auto-pilot state, writing one dull line at a time, sourcing photos we think are really going to tickle our audience to liven up one or two of the slideszzzzzzz. I really wouldn’t start from here.

Don’t even think of firing up that screen until you’ve got a clear idea of two very important things first:

  • Your objectives
  • Your audience

What are your objectives?

As a result of your presentation, what MUST happen? If you can’t clarify this, ask your manager or colleagues for input and make sure you’ve got a goal or a couple of goals for your presentation. Not Goals of the Big, Hairy and Audacious kind, but goals that may contribute to achieving a BHAG, in the time you have available.

For example, could you get:

  • Approval on a proposed scope of work?
  • Go-ahead on a quotation?
  • An agreed shortlist of 2-3 from several possible ideas?
  • Agreement to conduct a pilot phase of research?
  • Sign-off on a budget for hiring more people?

Let’s say you’ve got an hour for your meeting. What’s realistic in 60 minutes, when you allow for someone to be a little late, someone to need to leave 5-10 minutes early, and someone to ask lots of questions – and time to wrap up? If you’ve got a quiet audience you may get away with a 30-minute presentation – but don’t bet on it. Better to allow for a maximum of 20 minutes of presenting and up to 25 minutes of discussion, which leaves 15 minutes for wrap-up – assuming you start on time. In which case, you will need to limit the number of objectives that you can aim to achieve.

Tip: brainstorm as many possible objectives for your presentation as you can, making sure they’re very specific, then rank them. Take your top 1 or 2 and get agreement from colleagues before going any further.

Who’s your audience?

When I work with groups on their presentation skills, I always get them to make a pen portrait of their audience. When they’re done, I ask them to nod if they’ve ever created a presentation in the past and omitted this step. There’s usually a few nodding heads and sheepish looks. We can all too easily fall into the trap of what we need from a presentation, and what we need to say, and how we need to say it – and leave out the people who have to hear it and (gosh!) join in the dialogue before we can progress further.

Does your audience:

  • Know what your objectives are?
  • Know what their objectives are?
  • Need lots of data and evidence to make a decision?
  • Like to ask lots of questions?
  • Debate with you and your colleagues as well as their own?
  • Have the authority to give the go-ahead there and then, or will they need to ‘take it under advisement’ (meaning: “I need to take this back to HQ. And that may take some time.”)?

Tip: ensure you know who’s going to be in the room and create pen portraits of each them, and their company as a whole. Refer back to your pen portraits as you create, discuss and rehearse your presentation. These are just a few questions to help you do your homework on your audience; you can find more here.

Only when you are crystal clear on your objectives and your audience can you start to map out your presentation, so that it speaks to your audience in ways that will draw them towards your objectives.

Firing up your presentation software first is just one of many ‘HOW NOT TOs’ when it comes to creating presentations, closely followed by:

  • Having too many and/or vague objectives for the presentation
  • Not doing your homework about your audience and tailoring your presentation accordingly
  • Creating a lecture or sales pitch, as opposed to creating a compelling story
  • Not rehearsing enough, if it all.

You may also find this post useful: 10 reasons why you need to rehearse your next presentation.

Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’, available now at bookstores and on Amazon.

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