Planning Your Presentations: Message, Audience and You

Unfortunately there are no quick shortcuts, no “one weird tip”, that can make you a great presenter. Developing the ability to communicate your ideas effectively is just too complicated for there to be an easy fix.

But whatever kinds of presentations you do– and we’re all presenters these days– keeping a few big ideas in mind while you’re planning your talk can go a long way toward helping you achieve your goals. Making sure that you’ve clearly defined your Message, that you’ve taken the needs of your Audience into account and that You act as a good representative for your argument will make your presentations much more effective, whether you’re giving a keynote speech to a ballroom full of people or just hoping to charm your favorite barista into upgrading your latte.

Here I’m using that perennial junior high geometry favorite, the Venn diagram, to represent the way these three critical issues should overlap in your presentations, though you could also think of trying to manage them as juggling or as a balancing act. The main thing is that you need to engage all of them simultaneously.

If you can remember back as far as the seventh grade, the concept represented by the Venn diagram above is that you want to hit the sweet spot where all three concepts intersect; this is the point where you have the best chance of persuading your audience and achieving your objectives. Neglect one or more of these elements in your talk, on the other hand, and you risk losing your audience’s attention or making them start to wonder why they’re listening to you at all.

So take the time to figure out the relationship between all three elements of any presentation. Here are some questions about each that can help you make a good start.

Message:

This may seem like an obvious question, but what do you hope to accomplish with your presentation? Far too many talks happen for no other reason than that they’ve been scheduled. You don’t want your presentation to be one of those because there are few things that audiences resent more than having their time wasted; don’t leave them trying to figure out what you want. Try writing the objective of your presentation in one sentence and keep referring back to it to make sure that you’re still on track. If you can’t come up with a clear objective, think about whether you should really be having a presentation at all.

Audience:

It’s impossible to completely separate your audience for your message, and you should really never try to. You need to ask yourself who they are, what they already know, and how you want to persuade them every time you set out to develop what you’re going to say. Every audience is different and every audience will feel differently about you– so you need to plan accordingly. How will you target your message specifically for them? What challenges are they likely to pose?

You:

The first question you always need to ask yourself before taking on any presentation assignment is whether you’re the right person to give this specific talk. Are you qualified? Will the audience see you as authoritative? What preexisting feelings do they have about you? Sometimes you just have to say no or recruit someone else to help when you’re asked to give a presentation that isn’t well suited for you. If you do decide to move ahead you need to ask yourself how you will present yourself and “perform” for this audience. What’s the right tone?  What should you wear?  How will you interact with these people?  What can you do to make this presentation as successful as possible?

You’ll never be guaranteed that a presentation will be successful; I’ve had talks interrupted by building evacuations and disrupted by feuding audience members. But planning your presentation around your Message, your Audience and You will help make you a much more effective speaker.

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