How To Build An Engaging Presentation

There are many things needed to create an engaging presentation beyond having a better slide deck. Let’s look at breaking down the process from start to finish. Remember, that although this is written linearly, you may actually loop back to any or all of these steps repeatedly during the process.

Pick your topic – Sometimes I start with an overarching theme, sometimes I start with a catchy title, but however you start, you need to know what you are going to talk about. Maybe you need to start broad and then narrow it down, or maybe you’ve already had it narrowed down to a succinct topic.

Things to consider:

  • Who is your audience? You don’t want to be too general for a room full of specialists and you don’t want to be overly technical to the general public.
  • How much time do you have to speak? You can’t present on “The history of everything ever” in 20 minutes. Make sure your content will reasonably fit within the allotted time.
  • Is your topic interesting to the audience? You might think your topic is super interesting, but will you be boring your audience to distraction?

Brainstorming – Once I have an idea on what I am going to speak about, I start planning. I use pen & paper or sometimes a big whiteboard and jot down ideas, lots of ideas, any ideas that come to mind. This could include themes, references, and quotes among other ideas.

Things to consider: This is not the time to worry about timing, or flow, or anything other than generating ideas. Don’t self-censor and worry about if an idea is good or not. That will come later.

Structure – Think about how you want to lay out your presentation. This is when you start building the framework to contain your content.

Things to consider: You might like to follow a three-act structure or other storytelling structures. What will fit your content, venue, and audience the best? Will there be a question and answer period? If so, think about how you want to incorporate that – hint: don’t end with Q&A. You can put it towards the end, but then leave time for your strong closing. A common structure I follow is – Introduction/Exposition — Problem/Reflecting — Resolution/optional Q&A/Call to Action

Focus – This is the part where you examine your ideas and mold and cut into the story you wish to tell. More than likely, you have too many ideas to fit into your allotted time. What can get cut for clarity? What ideas did you come up with that won’t fit this talk? Set those aside for another time. With the remaining ideas, see what will fit best in what part of your structure. Get your ideas organized so you can begin to envision how your presentation will flow.

Writing / Creating Your Slide Deck – I put these together because I tend to do these simultaneously. If I am going to be using a slide deck, sometimes I will create that first and use that to guide my writing. Other times I will write first and then create my slides. Occasionally I will create a slide and write in chunks. I don’t always write/create slides in the order I will eventually present them.

When writing, I sometimes just write an outline and other times I write a full script of what I plan on saying. I’ve had success with both methods and for me it just depends on the topic. This is where I incorporate all of the ideas left from my focus time into a coherent story. You should allow ample time for rewrites and edits. I find that I often go back and make changes after a rehearsal.

When creating your slide deck, remember to Avoid Death by PowerPoint

Rehearsal – Once you have your content written and your slides created it is time to rehearse. Always use a timer so you can get a feel for how long it will take. Very often after the first rehearsal I’ve noted where stumbling blocks are, what needs to be modified, and whether or not I am going to run too long or too short. After each rehearsal go back and make edits as needed. Then rehearse again. Once you’ve reached the point where no more edits are needed, you can rehearse as if you were presenting. Go over it enough times so that you are comfortable and confident in your delivery. Don’t worry about memorizing a script word for word, but make sure you know your key points and how to get there.

Things to consider: While you don’t have to worry about memorizing a script start to finish, you should make sure you can start and end strong. You don’t want to verbally stumble when you first start off or, more importantly, right before you exit.

Go live – It’s the big day! Make sure you are in a good frame of mind before you go on stage. Give 100% and be optimally present while on site (not just on stage).


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