Key questions to ask about any presentation
Tom Salinsky writes...
Here are some key questions which any presenter should ask, at the earliest possible opportunity. Don’t wait until you already have a fat deck of slides, ask them at the beginning of the planning stage. They will influence your thinking from first stroke of the pen, to final round of applause as you go and sit down.
Question 1: Should this be presented at all?
This is not a flippant question. More than once, I’ve seen presentations given which would simply make far more sense as a written document. An end-of-year financial report is no doubt a fine and valuable instrument, and it makes sense for board-level members of the team to have access to this information. But honestly, what is gained by having some poor benighted soul read the whole thing out to you? Just possibly, you could circulate such a document before-hand and then offer to answer questions, but there’s no guarantee everyone (or anyone) will actually read it.
If someone in your organisation insists that this material should be presented, then my best advice to you is to write a detailed report in which you include every scrap of relevant data, and lengthy paragraphs of analysis. Then pick out a few key ideas which seem to you to be particularly interesting, exciting, representative or counter-intuitive. Give a very brief and breezy overview, and then go through your highlights in more detail. People will thank you.
Question 2: Should I be the one presenting this?
The true answer to question 1 is “no” far more often than is generally realised. The true answer to question 2 is “no” only very occasionally, but it is still worthwhile asking, because the answer will certainly focus your mind. Do you have the necessary experience, knowledge and conviction to present this material well? Is anyone else in the organisation better-qualified? Can you speak from the heart, or will what you are saying be somebody else’s words in your mouth? Assuming the answer is “yes”, we are led on to question 3.
Question 3: How can I make this mine? Is there something I can say about this subject which nobody else can?
The second half of the question sets the bar pretty high. It’s delightful, but of course not necessary, for the content of the presentation to be uniquely yours, but it should be yours and not anyone else’s. If someone else were to give the “same” presentation, answering the same brief, then it should reflect their personality and experience and therefore it might – it should! – be profoundly different, both in the details of what you say, and the big structural decisions that you make.
Question 4: What do I know about the audience? What base knowledge can I assume? What aspect of the material are they going to be most interested in?
Bearing in mind the importance of being focused on something, anything, as we saw in last week’s entry, to the greatest extent that you can, you should tailor the material to suit your audience. On a good day, this will be easy, because the audience will be composed of very similar people, whom you know well and whose attitudes you understand. If the audience is more diverse, then you have to aim your material at the people with the least knowledge. Don’t imagine that those with more experience will necessarily find this patronising. They too may get new insights, since you have to understand something very deeply in order to effectively simplify it. But ultimately, you should bring everyone up to the same level, before telling everybody there something they didn’t know before you started speaking.
Question 5: What are the audience’s expectations about the subject? And about your presentation?
This is not the same question as the previous one. Your audience may be very well-informed or they may be completely in the dark. But that tells you nothing about their expectations. Great presenters know just when to surprise the audience, but you cannot create surprise without first considering expectation, and you have to get the expectations right. Don’t cheerfully tell your audience that donations have exceeded last year’s by 15%, if the organisation has been talking up the boost in donations for months, and everyone was expecting them to double!
Once you have the answers to these questions – and not before! – you can start to write your first draft. Keep checking back in to make sure you have kept the answers firmly in mind, to end up with a presentation tailored to this audience, which only you could have given and which needed to be in this form.