Developing Presentation Material
If you have ever been in a meeting, or a classroom, chances are you have experienced at least one meeting where you left without being able to recall what the speaker's purpose was, or what the outcome of the meeting was. Don't let this happen to you--spend some time organizing all your thoughts. Make a list of the things your audience absolutely must know before they leave. These are your key points.

The list of absolute musts has to be pretty short. Think about it this way: Your wife (or husband, or domestic partner, or close friend) asks you to go to the grocery store to pick up a dozen eggs. You grab your keys and head for the door. As soon as you reach the door, however, she (or he) stops you. "Wait--we need some milk, too. And a loaf of bread."

Okay, you are fine remembering eggs, milk and bread. But if the list gets too much longer, you will have to write it down or you are likely to forget something.

Research has shown that most people's short-term memory will not recall more than five key points from a verbal presentation.

So when you are organizing your central points, it's a great idea to start by brainstorming ideas. You can write down every concept related to your topic that you would like for them to remember. At this stage, it may be most useful to simply scribble notes on a piece of paper, like a mind map, instead of trying to get overly organized at this early stage. Write down whatever occurs to you. Don't edit yourself; just throw things out on paper. All this information is already inside you because of all the research and preparation you have already done, so this activity should not take more than 10 minutes of your time. Don't try to be neat; the purpose is to get your ideas on paper. Neatness will come later.

See the following figure. For this example, I am going to present a hypothetical argument to my son explaining why I want him to go to bed at 9 p.m., instead of staying up playing his portable game system until midnight.

After you have everything on paper, what you are faced with is a mass of ideas. Next, you will need to focus and prioritize all those concepts. Think of your central concepts as a grocery list of the things you absolutely must have. You don't want to bog your attendees down with a list of 20 items. They won't remember them all, and they might end up forgetting the ones that are the most important.

Once you have selected your five main points (or less), consider writing them down in a table form, as shown below.

1. You'll be less tired in the morning

2. You will feel better at school

3. You will have more time to eat breakfast if you don't oversleep

4. You'll be in a better mood at school

5. You need sleep to grow

Notice how all the five reasons are focused on the benefit to him, because I am trying to persuade him, and to sell the idea. I have my own reasons, of course, which include not wanting to have to struggle with waking him up every morning. But since this is salesmanship, he's not going to care about my reasons.

A word on audience analysis: In order to construct an effective argument, you must understand your audience. For example, the Board of County Supervisors may feel very badly that your favorite campground is about to be made into 300 tract homes, but if your protest is 10 minutes of a purely emotional appeal, you are likely to lose a very good opportunity.

Understand who you are talking to, what motivates them, and what it is within their power to do. Analyze arguments that have succeeded in the past with your audience, and figure out which key points will mean the most to them in this situation.

Organizing these five reasons next to each other instead of as a list helps visualize them along the same line. This technique helps prevent very visual people from associating a rank with these ideas--we aren't quite ready to prioritize them just yet.

When you look at the list, you may notice that some of the ideas are pretty much the same, and you can lump some concepts under others, which helps pare down the list of central ideas even further.

1. You'll be less tired in the morning

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a. You will feel better at school

b. You'll be in a better mood at school

2. You will have more time to eat breakfast if you don't oversleep

3. You need sleep to grow

So now, all I have to remember are three basic points. When I'm finished having this conversation with my son, he only has three major things to recall.

Next, in order to help keep these concepts organized and to keep me from bouncing all over the place, I would want to pick a theme. Hopefully, your central points suggest a basic theme: in this case, my theme would be "You will feel better and grow taller if you get to sleep at a decent hour."

My theme would become the title of my presentation, and I would refer back to it a couple of times while I was speaking. I would state the three basic concepts, the absolutely must remember arguments during the introduction and the conclusion, and develop them further within the body of the presentation.

That leads me to the next step: filling out the details under each main point.

You'll feel better

You will have more time to eat breakfast if you don't oversleep

You need sleep to grow

You will be more able to pay attention to your teacher and will learn better

Studies show students who eat breakfast do better in school

You are heading into the major growing years of your life

You'll be in a better mood at school

You won't be so hungry before lunchtime

Explanation of research showing the relationship of sleep to growth

You'll be less tired in the morning

You'll be able to concentrate better during class if your stomach isn't growling

Your goal is to be a pro basketball player--so you will need to be taller than four feet

The purpose of developing your outline in this grid form instead of in a list is to help you keep a little flexibility in your presentation. Now that you have outlined your whole argument, you can look over it at a glance, from side-to-side and top-to-bottom, all on one page. With this concise view, you can easily prioritize which argument is most important to this particular audience, and you can also organize the supporting facts in order of importance. If you have put this information together with the help of word processing or spreadsheet software, you can move your arguments around with a little cut-and-paste action. If you hand-wrote them, of course you can re-write to move them around.

Building your presentation as a grid will also help you later on, if you should give a very similar presentation to a different audience. You can use the same basic arguments and structure, or augment them as appropriate, but it will be simple for you to reorganize your arguments based on each situation and the priorities of each audience. For example, each of my three children has different priorities: one would be a lot more interested in having the ability to eat breakfast. Another would be more interested in being in a better mood in school, and the third would most want to be able to grow taller. Also, for visual learners, the grid will be easier to recall (without using written notes) when you are giving the presentation. And if someone asks a question, it will be easier for you to pick up where you left off without derailing your train of thought.
Prepare the script

Some people just don't believe in preparing a formal script for a presentation. If you have given the same presentation a thousand times, it is entirely possible you could give an outstanding presentation based only on your outline. For expert presenters, this strategy works well. However, if you struggle with making presentations, if you are nervous, or if it is absolutely essential that you make a great impression, then writing out the script is a great idea. More than likely, you won't follow the script word-for-word during your presentation, but knowing what you want to say will ensure that you say everything you need to.

Parts of a presentation

Of course, there are all kinds of ways to present, but a simple formula is to include an Opening, Body, Summary, Q&A, and Closing in every speech.

The opening is where you explain "what has happened/what needs to happen." Then you can quickly state the purpose of the day's meeting. State the main concepts that your attendees absolutely must remember. Depending on the amount of time you have, your opening may take several minutes, or it can just be a few sentences long. If I were presenting my previously described argument about why my son should go to bed on time, my opening would be very short.

Example (using the bedtime argument)

  • State the problem: You have been staying up too late playing your handheld games. As a result, you are oversleeping in the morning and feeling tired in school.
  • State what needs to happen: This needs to stop so that you can perform better in school.
  • Purpose of the meeting: In the next 10 minutes, I am going to explain to you how getting more sleep can improve your life.
  • Statement of the key arguments: You will feel better, you will have more time to eat breakfast, and you will be able to grow more.

Once I have that all written out, I can choose to dress the basic verbiage up and make it into real sentences, in a kind of language that is appealing and appropriate to my son (the audience). The degree of pre-planning I do depends on the amount of time I have for the actual presentation and how much I plan to use my notes. For the purposes of this exercise, I am going to assume we want to keep things simple and not get very flowery. That will make it easier to remember what needs to be said, and will avoid dependency on written notes.

The body is simply the detailed explanation of all the basic arguments we have already outlined, and the summary is another opportunity to re-state the central points we want to make sure our audience remembers. Although written and oral communication has a lot in common and they developed out of the same root, one key difference is that in writing, you do not want to beat your audience over the head with an idea. Sometimes, when you are addressing a group verbally, you have to restate the same thing over and over again to make sure that your audience takes away right key points.

When you wrote papers in high school, you knew you had to follow a logical flow from one point to the next or your paper would appear disjointed. When giving a presentation, there is a great added benefit to having a strong logical flow from one concept to the next: it makes it easier for you to remember what you have to say! Classical rhetoric teachers used to advise their students to think of their speech as a house, and each part of the speech was a room in that house. You would enter through the foyer, which was the introduction, then move into the kitchen (you will get to eat breakfast), the living room (you will be in a better mood) and the bedroom (you grow more when you sleep more).

You can make whatever kinds of mental associations you like between arguments and rooms of the house; it's just a mental image to help you remember where you are and what you still have to say so that you can be less dependent on your crutches: note cards, PowerPoints, and written notes. You will also feel more comfortable allowing audience participation and free flow of ideas if you are confident you'll be able to pick back up right where you left off.

Another technique that can help you structure your presentation so that it is both more logical for the listener and easier for you to follow is to construct strong transitions from one segment to the next. To do this, look through your argument grid and see how one idea relates to the next. Unless you are giving a presentation about completely random ideas, chances are good you'll be able to connect the dots. In the example of my son's bedtime argument, flowing from being able to eat breakfast in the morning into growing more allows a transition like, "another effect of being well-fed is that your body is able to take all those nutrients and put them to work helping you grow--but in order to make that happen, you need quality sleep time."

Sometimes transitions can be hard to make. You might feel like you are stretching your speech like a Slinky to connect one idea to another. If you feel like it's too much of a leap, chances are your audience will, too. In that case, just go ahead and use the verbal equivalent of a chapter break: Take a breath. Sip some water. Allow some silence, and then address the fact that you are moving to something completely different. Example: "Now that we have finished with the employee of the quarter awards, let's move on to talking about ideas for the company picnic." These clean breaks can also be useful when you are switching from a segment of your presentation where you have been talking a lot into one where you want the audience to start participating more. A pause and break helps let them know that something different is about to happen.