At long last, it is time to prepare your content. All the information you have gathered will make the process of sitting down to prepare your presentation far easier than if you tried to prepare your content without it.
# 1: Do Your Research
Even if you are a super expert in your topic, you may need to do some research in order to prepare your presentation. You may need to check some facts, find some relevant quotes, create some new charts or graphs, or find the right images to get your message across. Doing research may involve requesting information from other people. This could be particularly true if you are presenting as part of a team.
The important thing is to leave yourself enough time to do a thorough job of finding what you need and for people you are interacting with to get back to you. We are all busy. You may have been in the situation of not responding immediately to a request for information, only to realize a week later that the email got buried in your inbox. Giving people a gentle nudge because they may have forgotten to get back to you is more acceptable than expecting them to respond immediately to your request because you left your preparation to the last minute.
In a form of “True Confessions”, advanced preparation wasn’t my strong suit when I was younger. Winging it was definitely more my style. Then I lived in Italy for 11 years, where planning ahead is viewed as a waste of time, and that completely ruined me! I have definitely had the experience of not having as much time to do my research and prepare my materials as I might have liked. I can remember thinking on more than one occasion “If only I had one more half-day, this would be so much better!”
If you leave the task to the last minute, you risk making mistakes that could impact your professional reputation, or worse, limit your career in some way. Typos, misquotes, sloppy slide construction… all of these indicate a job not carefully done. Do not let yourself fall into the trap of waiting until it’s too late (and the night before is definitely too late!) to do your research. I’ve had to train myself to start preparing far enough ahead, so I have the time to make my presentation perfect. Because of what I do, nothing else is acceptable.
# 2: Create Your Content
We will go into detail about choices you have when creating your content in another blog post. As we will see, the guiding factor that impacts how you create your content is whether you are informing or persuading (link to infographic). This impacts how many and the type of slides you create, how many and the type of stories you tell, and the general flow of your content.
# 3: Lock Down Your Presentation
When you are preparing a presentation, there comes a point when you have to say,
“This is it. I’m not going to change it anymore.”. This is because you need to practice delivering the presentation. I recommend your lockdown date to be at least two, if not three, days in advance of your delivery date. It could be more if you have to travel to give the presentation or if the organizers ask for your presentation two weeks ahead of the event. If the organizers ask for the presentation ahead, the version you send them should be the version you have practiced, because sometimes you are not able to modify your slides once the deck has been sent and loaded into whatever computer you’ll be presenting from.
Nailing down a presentation in advance is another thing I used to not be good at. I liked (and still like) to change my slides right up to the last minute. Every time I went through the presentation, I found something I wanted to change. I hated having to submit my slides two weeks in advance because I couldn’t change them anymore! But, by not locking it down, I did not give myself adequate time to practice my presentation and I was not as fluid in delivering it as I could have been. I had to learn that lesson the hard way.
One situation that can arise in organizations is that you are the person designated to deliver a presentation for a team of people and one or more of the members of your team want to change the content right up to the last minute. This happened to a client of mine. She was the one who had to stand and deliver a presentation to upper management on behalf of her team. One hour before she was to “go on”, one of her colleagues decided that some critical information was missing and insisted on inserting two new slides in the presentation. My client was furious, but because she had not set a deadline for “no more changes”, she didn’t have the leverage to stop him. Sure enough, when she got to these two slides, she had difficulty delivering them smoothly because she didn’t have time to study the content and practice delivering it. She felt this reflected poorly on her.
Agree ahead of time with your team (or yourself) at what point the content will be “locked down”, then stick to that deadline. The presentation will go much more smoothly if you do.
# 4: Practice Your Presentation
Practicing your presentation ahead of time is a wonderful habit to develop. You can probably guess by now this is another aspect of presenting which I was not good at. Not leaving myself time and my tendency to “wing it” meant I was often delivering my presentation for the first time in front of my intended audience. Depending on how well I knew the topic and what kind of a day I was having, sometimes I got away with it, but there were definitely times when I was not happy with my performance and wished I had taken the time to practice.
Running through your presentation even one time will make you much more comfortable when you have to give it for real. It will decrease the likelihood of “uhming” and “ahing”; you won’t stumble or lose your place and you will be able to keep your attention where it should be, on the audience.
You can “trial” deliver your presentation to colleagues, your spouse or partner, to the mirror, or to your cat, but deliver it you must. You want to practice at least once with someone (or a group of people) you are sure will give you honest feedback. You don’t want to just hear “That was great!” You also want to hear “I would move that slide up in the deck.” or “That diagram doesn’t make sense to me.”
If you want honest, constructive feedback, you have to let people know you are open to it. Give them permission to be “constructively critical” and thank them for whatever it is they say. Given that is the kind of feedback that will strengthen your presentation and help you knock it out of the park, your cat might not be the only practice audience you want to seek out.
Another valuable tool when you are practicing is to video record yourself, then watch the video. This can be painful (and terrifying), but it is incredibly instructive. If you choose to do this, be sure to do it far enough in advance that you have time to fix what needs fixing. Some bad habits are not that easy to change. We will talk more about this in a future post on delivery.