There are many ways to prepare a presentation. Some are more effective than others. Take the quiz to find out if your way is the most effective.
People are surprised when I tell them that there are at least 12 different ways to prepare a presentation (and probably more).
They think that there is the only way to prepare: their way.
In this article, I’ll introduce all the different ways to prepare a presentation (along with their strengths and weaknesses). I’ll also tell you the one thing you can do to improve your presentation preparation.
Preparing Content vs Rehearsing Delivery
We can split presentation preparation into two main tasks:
- How you prepare the content of your presentation.
- How you rehearse the delivery of your presentation.
Most people focus all of their attention on the first of these. Few people spend much time on the second.
This is completely upside down! The best presenters rehearse their delivery far more than their content.
The 12 ways to prepare a presentation come from the fact that there are (at least) 4 ways to prepare your content and 3 ways to prepare your delivery.
The 4 Ways to Prepare Your Content
Your content is the information you want to communicate during the presentation. It’s not the slides, it’s not the graphs, it is the words that you say.
There are at least four ways you can prepare your content, although there are almost certainly more. They are:
- Write it out word-for-word — You write your whole presentation beforehand. During the presentation, you either read out what you have written or you memorize the words. For some types of spoken communication (e.g. eulogies, political speeches, etc) this method is recommended, but not usually for presentations.
- Make PowerPoint slides first — You start to prepare by making your slide deck and use this as the basis of the presentation. Note that this approach is very different from making your slides after the presentation is developed, as I described in the article Do You Prepare Your Presentations All Wrong?
- Make a bulleted outline — You write out the structure of your presentation in bullet points and speak around those points during the presentation.
- Don’t write anything — You write nothing down and speak from your memory or off-the-cuff.
Which approach do you use?
Note that you can’t choose two of these. If you do combine approaches, the earlier ones tend to overpower the later ones. For example, some people write out their presentation word-for-word, then they create an outline, then they create slides. In this case, the word-for-word aspect will have the most effect.
I’ve met people who employ all of these approaches. Some people use the same approach all the time, others change their approach depending on the type of presentation they are giving. In general, I’ve found that more people use approaches 2 and 3 than the others.
The 3 Ways to Rehearse Your Delivery
On top of this, you have several ways you can rehearse your presentation:
- Don’t rehearse — This is known as “winging it”. You just turn up and hope that it goes well. Some people can pull this off effectively, for reasons I explain below. Most people can’t.
- Rehearse in your head — You run over the presentation in your mind but you don’t rehearse out loud. This is usually better than no rehearsal. However, it has a disadvantage: you think you know what you’re going to say but your body hasn’t practised saying it.
- Rehearse aloud — You practise actually speaking your presentation out loud, several times.
Which rehearsal approach do you use?
It is possible to combine rehearsal in your head with rehearsal aloud. In this case, the rehearsal aloud will have much more effect than the rehearsal in your head, so you should pick this.
The 12 Ways to Prepare a Presentation
Which approach is best?
Well, they each have their advantages and disadvantages. However, I’ve found that some approaches are better than others at producing engaging, effective presentations.
This graph shows how they stack up:
I think it’s important to be clear that these are general trends that I have noticed. A red box doesn’t mean that everyone who writes their presentation word-for-word and doesn’t rehearse will give a terrible presentation. Specific people might work well with specific approaches. However, in general, the closer you can get to the bright green boxes, the better your presentation can be.
Using the interactive quiz, pick out the option which best describes your preparation process (I’ve also included all the potential answers below the quiz).
Here are all the potential answers (in case the quiz isn’t working for you):
1. Don’t rehearse & write it word-for-word
This is the worst approach you can take for a presentation. Some people can pull it off. Actors, for example, are well-practised at sight-reading texts which they haven’t seen before. However, even actors are much more effective when they have had some practice. For most of us, this is a surefire route to an unengaging presentation.
2. Don’t rehearse & make slides first
This is, unfortunately, one of the most common approaches I have seen in business. People make slides then they just wing it when they get up to speak. I have even been known to do this myself — due to momentary laziness — and I have regretted it. The resulting presentation does not sound natural or engaging. It often feels like the speaker is just commenting on someone else’s slides that they have never seen before.
Sometimes people can pull this off if they know the topic very well. However, in these cases, I usually argue that they have, in fact, rehearsed their delivery of the content. They just haven’t rehearsed for this particular presentation.
3. Don’t rehearse & make a bulleted outline
In general, making a bulleted outline is better than making slides first because it is easier to change them. However, if you don’t rehearse, you won’t know that the bullet points need to be changed, so there is not much of a difference between the two approaches.
Due to the lack of rehearsal, this is not a very reliable method for preparing a presentation. Even so, it has a slight advantage over the word-for-word method because it allows you to be more spontaneous.
Again, some people are very good at using this method but usually, it’s because they have “rehearsed” by delivering the same or similar content before.
4. Don’t rehearse & don’t write anything
This is where you just “wing it.”
In the diagram, I have marked this down with the illustration of a die. This is because you are basically rolling a die and hoping for the best when you stand up with no preparation. Sometimes it might go well, more often it won’t.
The reason it can sometimes go well is because audiences love spontaneity… in some circumstances. If you are comfortable speaking in front of the audience, the spontaneity can make the presentation quite dynamic and engaging. However, if you are not so comfortable, this spontaneity very often turns into rambling, which is not engaging.
You can actually practise to become better at speaking off-the-cuff. It’s a great skill to have, but it is not a reliable approach for developing effective presentations.
5. Rehearse in your head & write it word-for-word
In general, running over your presentation in your head is better than no rehearsal at all. However, when you have written your presentation out word-for-word, this only gives you a very slight advantage. The fact that you are still reading the exact words means that the presentation is likely to sound unnatural and stilted.
6. Rehearse in your head & make slides first
This is also one of the common approaches in business. It is only slightly better than slides with no rehearsal. It’s better because you have at least thought through what you are going to say. However, without practising aloud you are running the risk of not being able to clearly express yourself when you speak.
This approach also has an added disadvantage. It gives you a false sense of confidence. You think that you know what you are going to say, but you only know “intellectually” what you will say. You haven’t rehearsed aloud so your speech won’t be as fluent.
7. Rehearse in your head & make a bulleted outline
Very occasionally, you have to give a presentation with very little preparation time and no chance to rehearse out loud.
Say, for example, you are attending a conference and the organiser asks you out-of-the-blue to give a 10 minute presentation on your work at the end of the current session. In this case, rehearsal in your head with a bulleted outline is an option. You can note down a general outline of what you will say on a piece of paper as you wait to get up to speak. The key here is to only talk about topics that you know very well.
You shouldn’t use this method for formal presentations where you have enough time to rehearse aloud. Even a little bit of out loud rehearsal can significantly improve your presentation.
8. Rehearse in your head & don’t write anything
As with rehearsal in your head with a bulleted outline, the only time you should really use this method is when you have to give a structured talk at very short notice with no time to rehearse aloud.
For most of us, this method can give a dangerous sense of false confidence. We think that we know what we will say, but when we speak aloud we find that our words are not as fluent as they were in our head. It’s better than no rehearsal, but it’s much more effective to rehearse aloud.
Having said that, some people are quite effective using this method. However, it is almost always because they are very experienced speakers and, as a result, can also speak eloquently off the cuff. They don’t really need to “rehearse” in their head, they only briefly think over what topics they will talk about. You can learn to do this better.
9. Rehearse aloud & write it word-for-word
This is the method preferred for eulogies, political speeches, readings, and other such formal speeches. For these types of public speaking event, it may be the only option.
For presentations, however, this method often leads to speech which sounds unnatural and fake. Presentations are usually better when they sound spontaneous and the way to achieve this is to rehearse aloud without writing the speech word-for-word.
When you do have to use this method, e.g. when you are giving a eulogy, the key is to rehearse … a lot. Rehearse in the same method that you will give the speech: if you will read during it, rehearse with the paper; if you will recite it from memory, memorise it as soon as possible and rehearse without the paper.
The goal is to rehearse so well that you don’t really need the written version. This way you can look up at the audience and be engaging. It is never engaging to see the top of people’s heads as they read quietly to themselves on stage.
10. Rehearse aloud & make slides first
This is also a popular approach to preparing presentations. When I was doing a PhD, it was the method that my research group tended to use.
It can be effective, but it is not as effective as writing out bullet points first. It is probably the reason that there are so many “cookie cutter” presentations in business (i.e. presentations which follow exactly the same structure and almost the same content every single time).
The problem with this method is that it is not flexible. It takes time to create slides. Once we have made them, it’s a pain to have to change them so we try to change as little as possible. As a result, we are stuck with whatever structure and content we thought of initially. Many times, this is not the most effective structure.
It’s much more effective to rehearse with an outline, then only create the slides once you are happy that you know exactly what order they should be in.
11. Rehearse aloud & make a bulleted outline
This is one of my two recommended approaches (the other is not to write anything at all). If you feel that you need to see your outline before you can rehearse, a bullet-pointed outline is perfect.
You should only write a few words for each bullet point. The idea is to remind you of the structure that you then rehearse aloud. You should not try to write down every little detail. The bullet should only serve as a reminder, not be a crutch.
The power of bullet points, compared to slides or word-for-word writing, is that they are very easy to change. As you rehearse aloud, you will usually find that some parts of the presentation need to be changed, removed, reorganised or just shortened. It is much easier to do this with bullet points than anything else.
12. Rehearse aloud & don’t write anything
Rehearsal aloud is the key to an engaging presentation. Of course, you have to rehearse effectively, until you are comfortable that you can deliver the presentation smoothly.
It is possible to rehearse a presentation without writing down anything at all. This often the approach that I use and it is very effective. Because you are starting with the presentation in your head, you can be far more confident that you will not forget it. When you can run through the presentation effectively in a rehearsal, you know that you are able to present it effectively in front of an audience.
For a lot of people, this approach seems quite scary. It’s very different from what they have done before. But, give it a go! It’s a lot easier than most people think, and the benefits can be huge.