The way most of us learn to prepare presentations is fundamentally flawed. Here's what you can do about it.
How do you prepare your presentations?
It's a question I often ask people and I'm sometimes concerned by their answers. A common response is "I don't know… I just prepare them, like everyone else does." Another answer is simply "in PowerPoint."
To me, such answers are the symptom of a wider problem — many of us are unaware how we really prepare our presentations. This makes it very hard to improve.
We want to be better public speakers but we aren't taught how to effectively develop presentations which engage and inspire people.
We muddle along using whatever habits for preparation we have picked up from our life.
Once you learn how to effectively prepare, every other part of presenting becomes much, much easier.
The Four Flawed Steps I Learned At School
For most of us, the first presentation we ever give is in school or university.
We rarely receive formal training in effective preparation. Instead, we learn the majority of our "technique" from friends, teachers and colleagues. We see how those people prepare their presentations, and they use the following, fundamentally flawed, approach.
Everyone from our peers to our lecturers make their presentations by first creating PowerPoint slides, so this is what we do too.
Does this process sound familiar to you?
- Do the work.
- Write a report about the work you did.
- Make PowerPoint slides of the report.
- Narrate the slides during the presentation.
What's wrong with this approach?
Well, for starters it's very challenging to turn a written report into a good verbal presentation, especially if you are not so experienced. By approaching presentations this way, we make life very difficult for ourselves. We start to create bad habits which are hard to unpick.
Verbal communication and written communication are just different, and they should be treated differently.
Why the Way We Learn to Prepare is All Wrong
From a very early age, we're taught that presentations are an intellectual exercise. In reality, the best presentations are expressive performances, even those which cover dry subject matter.
Here are some of the flawed habits we often acquire:
- We're taught to write out our presentation first. This leads to presentations which sound unnatural and stilted. It's much more effective (and easier, once you know how) to speak the ideas aloud and write as little of the presentation on paper as possible.
- We're taught to tell people our name, introduce our topic and give an outline at the beginning of every presentation. This leads to presentations which all start the same way and, as a result, are a signpost for the audience to fall asleep. It's much more effective to "start with a bang".
- We're taught to write the introduction, then the supporting points, then the conclusion. This leads to presentations which lack a clear goal and include unnecessary information. It's much more effective to use the approach that I outline at the end of this article.
- We're taught to prepare our slides first. This leads to presentations which are inflexible, badly structured and often boring to listen to. It's much more effective to prepare the slides last, only after the whole presentation is ready.
… I could go on for hours listing points like these.
Basically, we learn a lot of bad habits!
Why PowerPoint is Responsible for Many Bad Presentations
On top of all this, slides are tricky to get right (whether you're using PowerPoint or any other program). I've seen otherwise brilliant speakers suddenly become boring when they present with slides.
I often tell people: slides are an advanced speaking tool.
In university or school, the content of our PowerPoint slides usually sticks closely to the content of our report. We add the same introduction, the same supporting points and we add the same conclusion.
Because we are translating from one written form (a report) into another written form (a deck of PowerPoint slides), at no point do we consider what's the best way to explain the information verbally.
For most people, "the presentation" equals "the PowerPoint slides".
We tweak and tinker with our slides. We fiddle around with graphs, rewrite our many bullet points and change the font colour until we run out of new ideas… because this is what everyone else does.
When we ask peers or lecturers for feedback, they say "Show me your PowerPoint" because they don't know how to prepare either.
I'll say it again…Written communication and verbal communication are very different, and they should be treated differently.
How to Effectively Prepare the Content of the Presentation
The solution to this problem is simple: throw away this method of presentation preparation.
Don't write out your presentations — you'll only struggle to make these words sound natural when you try to present them. Make your slides last, only once you have practised aloud several times.
Instead, put away any written material and start by speaking through the presentation... out loud.
Here's my process for preparing a spoken presentation:
- If you have already written the information for your presentation (e.g. in a report) first read through the report one more time. Then, hide it in a drawer and don't look at it again until Step 8. Remember, you are already an expert in this subject matter. You did the work and/or wrote the report. You already know enough information to give a presentation.
- Stand up — if you can — and speak out loud. Don't write anything down yet (be patient, you'll be allowed to write notes in Step 7). For extra points, record yourself using a video camera or sound recorder. Imagine you are telling a friend about the work. What is the most important thing you want to highlight?
- Clarify Your Goal — Still speaking out loud, define the goal of the presentation. What do you want the audience to do, remember, or think after the presentation is finished?
- Clarify Your Audience — Take a few minutes to remind yourself who is the audience of the presentation. Who are they? What do they know already? What is the most important thing for them, regarding your presentation?
- Construct Your Conclusions — Before you develop the body of the presentation, decide on what your conclusions will be. Again, practise saying these out loud. Your conclusions may change later, but it's much more effective to prepare when you know where your presentation is going.
- Practise Your Introduction — Rehearse aloud the first few things you will say in your presentation. Forget about introducing yourself and your topic. Instead, focus on saying a few ideas which can capture the interest this specific audience from the very beginning.
- Make Notes (if necessary) — At this point, you may want to write down your introduction and conclusion, so that you remember them. If so, only write them in note form on a piece of paper. Five words max for each one.
- Fill Up Your Presentation — Now that you know your conclusions and your introduction, you can start to fill up the main points of the presentation. Don't go into the details yet, just work out how you can get smoothly from Point A (the introduction) to Point C (the conclusions). Do not include any information which does not contribute to the conclusions.
- Rehearse — The most important thing to do is rehearse out loud. Rehearse a lot, until you are comfortable speaking through your presentation without notes.
- Illustrate (if necessary) — Finally comes the time that you can prepare your slides, if you have to make slides. Think carefully which parts of your presentation would benefit from added visual information and only include images which are vital.
- Rehearse with slides — Once you have made your slides, rehearse thoroughly with them. Rehearse enough that you don't need to look at them when you are speaking because you know exactly what slide comes where.
You might think that this process sounds like a lot of work. However, once you are familiar with it, it is no more work than your old way of preparing presentations. The only difference is that now you are conscious of how to prepare effectively, and you are aware of all the steps.