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How to Make a Good Presentation Great (Part 1): Organizing Your Ideas

This is the first of a three-part series on speaking at conferences. The next two parts will be published in the coming weeks.


“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
—Jerry Seinfeld


I get it. Public speaking is daunting. It’s public, after all. All those eyeballs trained on you, judging every word and gesture. Every soul in the crowd thanking the heavens that it’s you up there and not them.

Except, of course, that’s not true.

The fear of public speaking is based in part on an erroneous belief that audiences are unforgiving. But they rarely are. In fact, audiences tend to be extra generous with their praise because they know that what you’re doing isn’t easy. It’s at least a little brave.

I’ve delivered dozens of talks. I’ve performed thousands of poems at poetry slams around the world. And I’ve written and performed hundreds of speeches as part of my college speech team. With more than two decades of experience in public speaking, here begin my thoughts on what’s required of an excellent, five-star presentation.

But first, why should you make a good presentation great?

It’s rewarding to share your opinions with the world. It’s a professional “pay it forward.” You’re helping others do better by telling them how you managed to do better.

Practically, speaking at conferences will help you sell more—whatever “sell” means to your organization. The only way to become a thought leader is to create thoughts and then share them. Vibrant, dynamic conference speeches reflect positively on your organization—lending them the credibility and awareness you’re hungry for.

(Besides, speaking in public strengthens your “personal brand”—a phrase I admit inspires quite a few eye rolls. If building your personal brand is important, speaking at professional conferences is a shortcut to getting there.)

Remember: Your first job is to entertain

As I write this, I’ve just spent the day at a major nonprofit conference. I saw three sessions today. I sat in the back of the room each time, and each time, the audience in front of me was lit by smartphone and laptop screens. At least half the audience was ignoring the speaker, choosing instead to check their email and, in the case of one person, buy clothes on Etsy.

If you don’t have the audience’s attention, there’s no point in continuing your talk. You might as well unplug and go grab lunch.

Why so much drifting attention? Because the speakers didn’t seem to care to keep us engaged. Sure, they had plenty of good information to share, but that information was packaged as a spoken-word textbook, not a presentation. There was no sense of drama.

If you don’t have the audience’s attention, there’s no point in continuing your talk. You might as well unplug and go grab lunch.

As you develop your talk, your primary role is entertainer. Great presentations are at least as entertaining as they are informative. Not to mention the fact that your audience will absorb your content more deeply if they’re rapt with attention than if they’re struggling not to tune you out.

First, Build a Good Presentation Outline

It’s tempting to jump into PowerPoint or Google Slides and begin building your slide deck. But slow down. You’ll thank me later. First, you need an outline.

Start with a Thesis

It’s a real professional bummer to take a few days off work, fly across the country to attend a conference, and deal with bitter hotel coffee—only to leave a “breakout session” wondering, What the heck was she saying?

Vagueness is a pitfall of public talks into which countless optimistic speakers fall.

Avoid that trap by starting with a thesis—a point of view, an argument, a line in the sand. Theses might look something like this:

  • To convince more young people to donate to your nonprofit, use their vocabulary and visual preferences.
  • To convince more members to renew their membership, craft an automated drip email campaign.
  • To increase enrollment at your college, craft content aimed specifically at parents. And parents care about two things: cost and safety.
  • If you want your government agency to grow in a more efficient and cost-effective manner, invest in sophisticated search engine optimization.

Your conference session should be built upon and around a clear, compact, concrete argument. Without it, your session will likely meander, leaving your audience scratching their heads and heading for the door early.

Write an Agenda

Once you have your thesis, write an agenda. Your agenda should be worded this way:

“By the end of this session, you should be able to…”

Framing an agenda this way puts the focus on your audience, not you. And it forces you, as a presenter, to think in specifics, to list what’s in it for them—i.e., why they should give you 45-60 minutes. You’re empowering them, in the realest sense of that word.

List 3-5 responses to that opening line. What will they be able to do after listening to you? Your points should all begin with verbs.

For example:

  • Discover stories hidden within your organization
  • Create more compelling stories for your young audiences
  • Leverage content more efficiently
  • Promote your content on new channels, including social media
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Search for Supporting Material

You aren’t writing a school essay; you’re developing a presentation. As such, you don’t need to carefully craft a logical support for your thesis. Instead, you need to show how your thesis can be put into place or explain why it should be adopted as a core belief. You need to pretty it up. Your presentation is essentially a Pinterest board.

Go on the hunt for anything in the orbit of your topic and thesis. You can find these in a number of ways:

Books
You don’t have to read them all the way through, necessarily, but you should lightly peruse them on the hunt for (a) arguments and (b) examples.

Google
I find that including the phrase “stories about” or “anecdotes” or “quotations” is helpful in narrowing a wider topic into more presentation-friendly search results.

Story Collections
The “Chicken Soup” series of books, along with anything by Paul Harvey, often include the kinds of anecdotes you want to populate your session with.

SSRN.com
This is Malcolm Gladwell’s favorite website, the Social Science Research Network—a website chock full of social science papers that will lend your talk credibility and insight.

Friends and Colleagues
Talk about your topic with your coworkers, peers, and family, because you’ll be shocked how often they have something to offer.

Don’t worry right now about how all of this will be put together in your presentation. Start a Google Doc and dump into it everything you encounter. Cut and paste URLs, quotations, and whole chunks of text. Be sure to keep track of where you get stuff, because you’ll want to attribute it later, when you build your slide deck.

Start with a Story or Exercise

About 30 years ago, TV shows and movies began adopting the “cold open.” The cold open is when the first thing you see is the beginning of the story before the opening credits. It’s meant to yank you in, to set the tone. Compared to classic movies, which would begin with 3-5 minutes of credits, the cold open is much more engaging.

Do the same. Give your presentation a cold open, usually an anecdote or interactive exercise. A couple of examples:

For my seminar entitled “How to Write Effective Web Copy,” I begin with a story about David Ogilvy, the advertising guru who one day helps a man who is homeless write a sign that earns the man more dollar bills in his cup. The story may be apocryphal, but it clearly demonstrates the thesis of the session: Finding the right words can improve how people interact with you.

For another session—this one named “Storytelling for Impact: How to Help Donors Understand the Value of Their Dollar”—I open with a storytelling exercise. I ask the audience to split into pairs and tell 30-second stories to each other. It’s not easy, but the stakes are low, and it’s always a hit. People are instantly on board.

Don’t begin your presentation with your agenda. Don’t begin by introducing yourself. Those come after your cold open. But you need the cold open to warm them up.


Stay tuned for the next part of this series, in which we’ll discuss the almighty slide deck!

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