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Speaker Camp: Structuring Your Presentation

Creating an underlying structure for your presentation will greatly assist with the winnowing and clarifying steps you will be going through as you refine your presentation. A strong structure can also help you avoid feeling overwhelmed by the effort of birthing a fully blown set of slides from the germ of an idea you are starting with.
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  • Structure is perhaps one of the most critical components of a presentation. Without structure there is no clear narrative, and ultimately the goal of your presentation is lost. Structure is what can bond five seemingly random ideas together to form a powerful message that drives home the overall goal of your talk.
  • —Nick Finck

Developing the structure for your presentation may not feel like the most exciting part of the presentation process, but we promise that the rest of the steps will be easier if you dedicate time to this effort. Creating an underlying structure for your presentation will greatly assist with the winnowing and clarifying steps you will be going through as you refine your presentation. A strong structure can also help you avoid feeling overwhelmed by the effort of birthing a fully blown set of slides from the germ of an idea you are starting with.

Good structure doesn’t just help with the presentation process; it also increases your likelihood of giving a successful presentation when your speaking slot finally comes. A strongly defined narrative and organizational framework for your presentation will keep the audience’s attention, help them grasp any complex topics in your talk, and ensure that they take away your most important points. And solid structure helps you make sure that you end your presentation on time and on a strong note—there is nothing more disappointing than a presentation that starts off promising but fails to deliver a satisfying ending.

Start with Your Presentation Goals

Before you even begin to develop your presentation structure, it is important to spend some thoughtful time clarifying your presentation goals. When you ask yourself questions about why and what you are presenting, as well as what you hope to accomplish, you will clarify your topic, its primary points, and what you want the audience to take away from your time together. Without clear goals, it is far too easy for your presentation to meander through the allotted time slot, leaving your audience lost or unable to recall the valuable points you worked so hard to convey.

What Are You Presenting?

Start by ensuring that you are very clear on what you are presenting. At this point in the presentation process, you have identified your presentation topic and written your title, abstract, and bio. These are good first steps toward structuring your presentation, but remember that the process of writing your presentation abstract focuses mainly on how to fit within the conference submission process and how to get accepted as a speaker.

The presentation itself needs to build on this beginning work, but instead of being focused on the conference submission process and those choosing the speakers, it needs to be directed toward the audience who will be attending your session. Before you begin putting your presentation together, consider the following:

  • What do you want the audience to get out of your presentation?
  • If they were to remember only one thing from your presentation, what should it be?
  • What should your audience be compelled to do after your presentation?

You should be able to answer these questions clearly and succinctly.

Why Are You Presenting?

Next, get as clear as you can on why you are presenting. Unless you are very clear on why are you speaking and what points you want to make, your audience won’t be clear either.

Knowing why you are presenting also helps you avoid the pitfall of being so close to your topic and the messages you want to convey that you forget that your audience needs to be brought along on the journey. They are attending your talk to learn something new, which means that they probably don’t have the knowledge and background on your topic that you do. So don’t forget to lead them toward the main points.

Clarifying “why you are presenting” should also help you understand your underlying goals for signing up for all of this work (e.g., to educate others on a topic you think is vital, to enhance your career breadth). Defining what you want to accomplish will help you fulfill the necessary steps toward a positive outcome. With awareness of why you are presenting, you can more easily determine what you need to cover so that you fulfill your presentation goals.

Why Should the Audience Care?

And finally, it’s important to specify why the audience should care about your topic, about your perspective, and about your presentation overall. The first two questions—what are you presenting and why are you presenting—help you gain clarity on the “what” of the presentation; this third question ensures that you understand and can therefore communicate the “so what” of the presentation. Knowing the “so what” will enable you to find the emotional hook of your topic and to begin to craft the structure and the presentation artifacts to support that hook.

Is it critically important that the audience starts making changes in their day-to-day lives or how they work because of your presentation? Should your audience use your presentation as an introduction to a topic that you want them to further pursue on their own? Or do you just want them to start thinking of things in a new way, perceiving their world from a different perspective that may slowly permeate their actions?

Understanding the “so what,” convincing the audience that they should care about your topic, and helping them embark on whatever next steps are important will take your presentation from one of the ambiguous many that blur together in their conference-soaked brains and will turn it into the one that they not only remember, but that they talk about and take action on.

What to Do?

All of these questions may seem a little daunting. You probably have a lot of ideas and thoughts floating around your head, and it can be difficult to translate them into anything concrete. The more concrete you can be with the answers to these questions, the easier the next phases of creating your presentation will be, and the stronger and more consistent your session will be when you actually give your presentation.

As with many of the presentation preparation subjects we’ll walk you through in this book, breaking this task down into some specific steps can be helpful for tackling the work and making it more manageable. Find yourself a quiet spot for about 30 to 60 minutes and try the following:

  1. Using your title and abstract, start writing short phrases that describe what your talk is about. Try to keep the phrases brief, focusing upon the biggest main points of your presentation. From this list, craft one sentence on what you are presenting. Make this sentence as clear and specific as possible—no run-on dangling participles!
  2. Next, spend a few minutes thinking about what you want your audience to remember from your talk. Is there a central concept, methodology, or tip that you want to make sure they grasp? Out of these ideas, prioritize the one thing you want your audience to retain. Write it down in one sentence and consider using this sentence in your presentation.
  3. Write down all of the reasons you are presenting: you always wanted to try it; you think your topic is so awesome that everyone should care about it; you want to get promoted and think presenting might help; you want to become more well known in the industry. Once you have captured your main reasons, spend a few minutes thinking about the order of priority. Which reasons are most important to you? Try to be as honest as you can—no one will see this. Write down your most important reason.

When you are finished, save this work in a place easily accessible from where you will most often be working on your presentation. If you get stuck during the presentation creation process, if you get confused, or if you feel like you have more (or fewer) ideas than make sense for your presentation, review your sentences. They will keep you on track and ensure that you are continually focused on your big idea.

At the end of the day, a presentation is a selling opportunity. You may be selling an idea, you may be selling a way of working, or you may be selling yourself. The better you can define what your perspective is and why it is important, the more the audience will follow along with you and be willing (and even excited!) to buy whatever it is that you are trying to sell.

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