Have you ever had to give a public presentation?
If so, you may remember damp palms, butterflies in your stomach, and an overwhelming wish to hide in a cupboard instead of striding onto the stage.
If you turn into a successful writer, chances are you’ll have to get used to public speaking.
The good news is that you can learn to speak publicly with confidence – and even enjoy it.
There are two keys factors that change the way you experience public presentations, one factor is the use of mental strategies that enable you to feel confident and in charge. The other factor is the preparation that results in a presentation that rocks – this is what this post focuses on.
In tandem with this post, I’ve published an article on Goodlife ZEN that covers the psychological and physical strategies that you can use in order to become a cool presenter: How to Speak in Public With Confidence – And Be On Top of Your Game. Read both articles to get the full juice.
Nail the benefit
Before you start preparing for your presentation, you need to ask an important question: what is the benefit to my audience? In order to get a good response from your audience, the presentation needs to have a clear benefit. It’s important to formulate the benefit right from the start. What new knowledge, new inspiration, or new skills do you want your audience to take away from your talk?
Create a memorable structure
As I explain in my article How to Speak in Public With Confidence – and Be On Top of Your Game one of the fears we face is that our mind goes blank during a presentation. There are some simple psychological tricks you can use to avoid memory blanks. In addition, you can structure your talk so that it is memorable for you as well as for your audience.
An structure that storytellers have used since ancient times is the three-act form. In the design of your presentation, Act 1 is the opening. It is the description of the pain points, challenges, and frustration that your audience faces in respect of your topic. When you promise to show how to overcome these challenges in order to reach a desired outcome, you sets up a dramatic tension.
The corresponding part of your presentation is Act 3. It offers the resolution, and describes how one is changed and rewarded through overcoming the challenges and attaining the desired outcome.
Act 2 is the detailed description of the path from A to B. It is the ‘how to’ section of the presentation.
No matter what your topic is, this structure ensures that you connect with your audience, because people feel understood when you name their pain, and inspired when you show them how to overcome it. This three-act structure ensures dramatic tension and release – which you need in order to create a memorable presentation.
What is your story thread?
Whatever the topic of your presentation is, it’s useful to consider using a consistent story thread or motif. We have all internalized many archetypal motifs through stories that have been told and retold through the generations. Here are just a few:
Climbing a mountain: how someone overcomes all difficulties to reach the summit.
Finding the missing piece of a puzzle: how a search is finally rewarded with a new insight into how pieces fit together.
Voyage into the unknown: how an adventurer set out into the unknown and finds a place hitherto unknown.
The treasure hunt: how someone follows hidden clues and finally uncovers a treasure.
The reluctant hero: how an ordinary person overcomes all odds and ends up a hero.
Finding the source: how someone walked back in order to find the source or origin.
The blockbuster story: you can use a story thread from popular culture. An example would be Star Wars.
There are many more such story threads. If you use a story thread, your presentation will be strengthened with an invisible backbone. A consistent motif will make it easy to find appropriate metaphors and images to support your topic.
The building blocks of a great presentation
In keeping with the underlying three-act structure, you need three main building blocks, the opening, the development, and the closing.
Your first task is get your audience’s attention and to create a connection. A great way to do this is to relate a personal story, the ‘why’ of your presentation. Why are you passionate about this topic? How does this topic relate to your life? If you lead in with a personal story, it’s much easier for people to relate to your topic. And your personal story establishes authority. In order to grab your audience’s attention, see if you can start in a way that’s unexpected.
Let’s say you are going to present a talk on how to become a runner, in order to go from flab to fit.
Your opening could be your story about how you were overweight, and then managed to become slim and fit by taking up running. Once you’ve established your motivation and authority, it’s time to start with Act 1, that is, you need to speak about people’s pain, frustration and barriers in respect of your topic. The pain points here could be feeling unattractive, unhealthy, or unfit. The challenge could be the beliefs that ‘I could never learn to run’, or ‘I get puffed after only a few meters – how could I ever get fit?’
The desired outcome (that’s going to be Act 3 of your presentation) is to become a runner in only 5 weeks ‘by using the following 5 step body-control program’. In this scenario you would need to spend a moment explaining why the ‘5 step body-control program’ is effective. Then it’s time for the development phase.
This is the phase where you lay out exactly how to overcome the pain points in order to reach the desired outcome. The brain learns best if you offer bite-sized bits of information. This is why numbered steps or bullet-points work so well. This is going to be the ‘meat in the sandwich’, so to speak. The development part of your presentation should be the longest part with detailed information. Once you have laid out how to achieve the desired outcome, it’s time for the closing.
In the closure it’s time to talk about how it feels when you achieve the benefits. Maybe you can give examples of others who also achieved success in order to inspire and motivate. It’s a good idea to repeat briefly the main steps of your development phase. In other words, you need to remind them briefly of the main content of your presentation.
Then comes the call to action. You need to outline the next step for your listeners. What should they do now in order to move closer to the desired outcome? Are there special resources they can access? Is there an action they can do today that will start them on a new path?
To PowerPoint or not?
Most presenters these days use PowerPoint slides. That can be very effective. Because you can use images and motion in order to hammer home your points. I think in general, PowerPoint presentations are great if you want to convey information. However, if your presentation revolves is inspirational and revolves around your personal story, then just words may well work better because such a presentation is more intimate.
Whether or not you use PowerPoint, it’s important for your presentation to sound like your talking, and not reading aloud.
Here are two books that I find especially helpful in creating PowerPoint presentations:
Cliff Atkinson: Beyond Bullet Points. This book explains in detail how to put together a presentation that is based on the 3-act structure. For Mac users, iWork: Keynote ’09 by Richard Harrington is a great resource that shows how to create stunning presentations that inform, motivate, and inspire.
The best presentation are conversational. Even if you’ve worked them out to the letter, they still need to sound spontaneous. The way to write conversationally is to read aloud your draft to others. Whenever you notice that a sentence sounds contrived, mark it for further work. What often works is to shorten sentences, use simple language and use contractions, such as ‘you’ll’ instead of ‘you will’. These rehearsals are a key part of building confidence. Read more on how to conduct rehearsals for maximum effect here.
Each presentation usually has a timeframe that you need to adhere to – especially if you invite questions at the end. Make sure you time your rehearsals. Then cut your text so that you spend only 80% of the allotted time, in order to have some time up your sleeve.
As you can see from the notes above, the key strategy for creating a riveting presentation is to set up a dramatic tension, using the 3-act structure that sets up a tension between the paint points that the audience experiences and the desired outcomes that your presentation offers.
Most importantly, if you use archetypal story threads that bind the parts of the presentation together, you can create a memorable presentation.
What are your tips for creating a presentation? Please share them in the comments.