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Five questions to hone and sharpen your presentation

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You are about to give a presentation. Do you know why you are presenting? Are you clear about your desired result? Have you decided what you want people to think and feel during your presentation, and, more importantly, what you want them to say and do afterwards? If your presentation makes no difference to anyone, is there any reason at all to give it?

My personal wish is that my audience goes away changed (at least to some degree). I want them to be ready to act differently in some way. The purpose of my presentation is the first thing I think about when constructing a talk, or when giving feedback on someone else’s. Again, the first question to ask is:

Question 1. What do you want to happen after your talk? What is your desired result?

When you have thought about the question, write down your answer. If you have more than one answer, then write them all down. You can certainly have more than one desired outcome. Remember that you own the purpose of your talk. That purpose can be big or small, altruistic or selfish. Perhaps you want people to say “yes” to a proposal that you are making, or perhaps you just want people to think that you are clever (or both?). You decide what it is. But decide.

Being clear about why you are presenting will improve your presentations tenfold. This is a great start, but how do you go from knowing your desired result, to achieving that result? Here are four follow-up questions that will help you track your path from purpose to result. The next question to ask is:

Question 2. Can your audience understand you? Can they follow you each step of the way?

If your audience doesn’t understand what you say, or can’t follow the flow of your argument or story, then your message will not enter into their minds. If you don’t get inside their heads you are just noise.

There are two main traps that I see speakers fall into:

  • Taking too long to give the audience the context they need to understand what a talk is about.
  • Failing to provide clear and logical transitions between the different parts of a talk.

To get your audience off to a good start, think about who they are: what they already know, and what the quickest way is that you could state your main point, thesis, question or purpose. Then look at each transition and make sure that the audience can follow along. I encourage you to start by making it overly obvious how one idea leads to the next.

If you are unsure of what your argument actually is, break your talk into 5–10 bullet points. This will reveal your structure — or lack thereof — and allow you to fine tune it.

Let’s say they understand everything you say, but do they believe it? This is the subject of the next question:

Question 3. Will your audience believe what you say?

During your talk you will tell stories, cite facts, make claims and draw conclusions. Will the audience believe you? What are the things that your audience might doubt? There are two kinds of things that they might contest: things that go against what they already believe in, and things that run counter to what they want to believe in. To win them over you must establish your credibility as a presenter and the credibility of your facts.

Your personal credibility hinges on how you conduct yourself and on your reputation. Make sure to get a good introduction before you start, and then present professionally.

As for the credibility of your facts, the willingness of people to accept them will increase if your claims are easy to understand and if you cite credible sources and evidence. Sometimes, acknowledging the audience’s scepticism can be a way of gaining their trust.

This all comes to naught if your audience feels nothing. So that is the next thing to examine:

Question 4. Will they care? Will they be engaged?

Even if your audience understands and believes you, they are not going to do anything unless they also care. What would make them care? What would make a difference to your audience?

Try to put yourself in their shoes. Look for things that would make their lives simpler and better, and for things that align with their values and the kind of people they want to be. These are all things that people care about.

Your audience will feel that you are speaking to them if they can recognise themselves in what you say. Are you solving a problem that they have, or answering a question that is on their minds? Are you (at least) entertaining? Can you surprise them? Can you rouse their emotions? These are all paths towards engagement.

We are almost there. Getting your audience past the final hurdle is the topic of the last question.

Question 5. Do they know what to do?

Your audience is now ready. They believe you and they are engaged. They will not act, however, unless it is abundantly clear to them what they should do, how to do it, and when to do it.

To make it easy for your audience to act, summarise what you want them to remember and present it in a memorable form. This can be as simple as a handful of well worded bullet points, or a well-crafted slogan. Suggest a simple first step and also a trigger for when to perform that action.

I really want you to remember the five questions and try them out. That is why I wrote this text. To help you remember them, I have summarised them below and created an acronym. The next time you are putting together a presentation, or giving feedback on a talk, see if you can remember the word “rubed.” The acronym breaks down like this:

R is for the desired result.

U is for understandable.

B is for believable.

E is for engaging — that they care.

D is for doing — the action you want them to take.

The acronym “rubed” makes me think of the word “rubbed,” but missing a “b.” It’s as if that “b” has been rubbed off… I drew you a picture. It’s at the top of this essay.