You look out at the crowd from the side of the stage. You feel the butterflies and your palms are sweaty. You hear your name from the conference organizer and you get ready to climb the stairs to the stage. 30 minutes of uninterrupted talking is in your immediate future.
That’s the feeling I still get everytime I get ready to speak in public. Granted, I’m not a seasoned vet of the national conference speaking circuit, but I’ve probably had more opportunities to speak in public than 80%+ of people my age. It’s a privilege I’m grateful for and one I’ll continue to take advantage of as I work hard to become a great storyteller and communicator.
Over the next two months, I’ll have the opportunity to speak at two conferences I’m very excited about:
- February 8th: Georgia Collegiate Leadership Conference – Athens, GA
- Topic: Leaving a Legacy as a Student Leader
- March 28th: TEDxUGA – Athens, GA
- Topic: Living for Monday is the new standard for career success
I’m incredibly excited and humbled by both opportunities, which means I’m taking my preparation very seriously. I’ve invested time in books and people that have helped me understand how to create a prep process that will help me feel prepared to deliver a great experience for the audience.
I figure sharing my process for preparation could be helpful for others, so here goes.
Research and Resources
First off, the resources I think are most helpful for learning how to design, practice, and deliver a great talk:
- The Minto Pyramid Principle – Perhaps one of the best books of all time for understanding a framework for structured, clear communication. This is required reading for management consultants, and I believe it is one of the best books to read for current or aspiring public speakers. It’s ridiculously expensive, but it delivers real value.
- Stand and Deliver by Dale Carnegie Training — a good introduction and overview to the preparation process for delivering a pro-level presentation
- How to Deliver a TED Talk by Jeremey Donovan — the author has taken the time to analyze hundreds of the most successful TED talks to understand what makes them engaging and powerful. He shares overall strategies for presentation prep, design, and delivery
- Resonate by Nancy Duarte — Duarte is also the name of the author’s agency that builds custom slide presentations for executive-level speakers. This book presents the principles Duarte has learned in analyzing some of the most powerful speeches of all time.
- Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte — Another book from Duarte focused specifically on the visual presentation of information through presentation software. The book outlines how to most effectively create a presentation companion.
- Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds — This is a great overview text on building a process for presentation creation and then turning it into an engaging set of slides that will make the presentation better (rather than making the audience’s eyes glaze over).
- Top 20 TED talks of all time — This is a list of the most watched TED talks of all time as of the end of 2013, according to TED itself. Once you have an established understanding of frameworks and theories, it is incredibly helpful to see real examples. These talks would be a great place to start developing an applied understanding of how to deliver a great talk.
The first thing I do in preparing any talk is to come up with the key idea. This is much the same as writing an article. I always come up with a headline first, then write the article, then rewrite the headline for the best outcome. Presentations can be created in a similar fashion.
Once I have an idea of the outcome, I try to stick to a 3×3 outline with an intro tagged on the front and a conclusion on the end. The framework looks like this:
- Key Point #1: Problem
- Key Point #1: Proof
- Key Point #1: Premise
- Key Point #2: Problem
- Key Point #2: Proof
- Key Point #2: Premise
- Key Point #3: Problem
- Key Point #3: Proof
- Key Point #3: Premise
The key points support the main message of the talk in one of two ways, which come from The Minto Pyramid Principle. First, you can use the key points to explain how the main message works in practice. Or, second, you can use the key points to explain why the main message is true or why the audience should believe what you believe.
So, if your presentation main message were “Atlanta Tech Village is the best place to work in Atlanta” then the three key points might be:
- You can meet other smart entrepreneurs
- Atlanta Tech Village a widely recognized brand in Atlanta
- They have free snacks
This would be a “Why” logic to support your main message.
The problem -> proof -> premise framework comes from a combination of Resonate and How to Deliver a TED Talk. The problem -> proof progression highlights the principles from Resonate, in which Duarte argues that some of the best speeches in history create a picture of some problem in the world and then contrast that with a vision for the future. The problem = problem; the premise = an anecdote or visionary tale of the future.
The proof -> premise progression comes from How to Deliver a TED Talk in which Donovan argues that great presentations first use anecdotes or research-based evidence to tell a story that proves the key point. However, the story does not directly make the point until after the audience has been led through the emotional up and down of the story to reach a similar conclusion on their own. The premise comes when you outline and clearly state the key point, creating a shared language and instilling the point in the minds of the audience.
With this framework, you would introduce your main message. Then, you would outline the key points to come, preparing the audience for the checkpoints along the way. Then you would work through each key point using the problem -> proof -> premise structure.
This creates a feeling in the audience of: “I hear the main message” then “I know what to expect over the next 30-60 minutes” then “Oh no, that’s a problem! Oh, but that is a really cool vision for a better future. Wow, that’s a really intriguing point and he already proved it to me with that story.” then “Ah, I see, that was part 1, now we’re moving on to part 2.” then “I get it, the key message was BLAH, he supported that with the three key points, and his conclusion made one last passionate argument for why we should believe what he believes.”
One last point: I try to keep a talk to three key points, but sometimes I will include as many as five. The fewer key points you make, the more likely the audience will be to remember your message and be able to relay it to others. There is only so much an audience can process in one presentation. Your job is to make them intrigued enough about your idea to learn more, not to relay all of your knowledge in one hour.
Research + Anecdotes
One further practice I like to incorporate into my presentations is tying research to anecdotes. Research proves that there is some basis for the points I am making. Anecdotes create an emotional tie to the data presented by research. The combination of the two make the connection between theory and practice, logic and emotion.
Practically speaking, research and anecdotes can be tied into any part of the 3×3 framework. The problem can and should incorporate an anecdote that relates back to some research proving that there is a real problem. The proof can use an anecdote to relate back to research showing what is possible if some change is made in the world. The premise can summarize all of it into a key point the audience can relate to because you have appealed to both logic and emotion.
Creating the Presentation
To sum everything up, here is a bullet list for my project prep process (I’ll let you know how it works out for me after these two talks):
- Understand the conference’s theme, audience, requirements (time/space/etc), and background
- Create a main message or “headline” for the talk
- Create a list of outcomes for the audience
- Write a blog post based roughly on the outcomes to get everything related to the topic out of my head and onto paper
- Create a 3×3 outline, starting with key points and then problem + proof. I do this on sticky notes so I can see them arranged in a 3×3 grid. I don’t write the entire thing out, just create bullets that serve as cues for my talking points.
- Create an introduction and conclusion
- Record a practice session using the outline
- Listen to the practice session.
- Make edits
- Repeat steps 7-9 five times
- Decide whether slides will make the presentation better or simply distract the audience from the message
- Sketch slides on post it notes based on my edited outline
- Repeat steps 7-10. Here I have the sticky note sketches in front of me and practice for when I would switch the slides as I speak.
- Create digital versions of the slides using presentation software (Keynote/Powerpoint/Prezi/etc). Primarily image-driven slides. No more than 10 words per slide, preferably less than 6.
- Repeat steps 7-10. Make updates in the slides accordingly.
- Finalize presentation.
- If time, edit the original brain dump blog post based on the finalized presentation. This is where you can include all of the information that didn’t fit into the presentation. You can add footnotes, images, graphs, detailed research references, etc.
- Edit the document and create a PDF version. Send it to the conference organizer after the presentation to provide to attendees. They will appreciate a take home that helps them dive deeper if they are interested in the topic.
I believe that if I am going to speak in public, I should be well-prepared and engaging. Most presentations I have seen throughout my life have been incredibly boring, do not effectively use research + anecdotes, and leave me wondering what else I could have done with the hour I spent listening. My aspiration is to give the best talk anyone in the audience has ever heard. I won’t reach that bar every time I speak (if ever). However, if I’m not willing to shoot for that bar, then I believe I should save everyone time and energy by foregoing the opportunity to speak at all.
How do you prepare for presentations? How could I improve my preparation process? Who is the best speaker you have ever heard in person? What was the best talk topic you have ever heard?