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The Importance of Knowing Presentation Content
The Importance of Knowing Presentation Content
It is important that you understand your subject matter before you start speaking.

Content is central to any presentation. Your content must be accurate, factual, and well-organized before you start adding any kinds of bells and whistles along with it. In an ideal world, you would have a thorough knowledge of your subject matter before you start to present, but we all know that doesn't happen every time. Our clients and supervisors give us assignments just outside our comfort zones, or we change jobs and have to learn new product lines, or a new issue comes up that we have to quickly learn, digest, and be able to explain to someone else.

With all the advances in presentation technology (like PowerPoints and multimedia) it's pretty easy to get distracted from the meat of the presentation. Sometimes people spend hours working with their animated transitions--when what really matters is the message. It's pretty easy to understand how this happens. Research is hard if you're working on a new subject. And if it's a familiar subject, you feel like you know it so well you don't even have to prepare. And jazzy presentation software is sometimes just fun to play with.

However, keep in mind the great and famous presenters who shaped world history: Moses; Jesus; Gandhi; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Abraham Lincoln. What stands out about these speeches are the concepts expressed and the words used to express them. Most of these orators lived in a time before any kind of visual aids were available (except for Moses, who had the stone tablets) a lack of visuals forced speakers to focus on the message.

People will say that we live in an MTV-world, where everyone is so accustomed to bright colors and flashy packaging that they can't pay attention to anything else. If you believe that, then incorporate stunning visuals into your presentations. But remember that glitz without substance is just like a tin-foil necklace--something to be tossed aside and forgotten at the earliest opportunity.
Do your research

To develop a thorough base of knowledge, make sure you understand the topic well. If you are already an expert, you may not need to spend a lot of time researching details, but you will need to make sure you have a firm grasp on the particulars for this situation. For example, if you have designed an algorithm that allows a computer program to perform one specific activity very well, and you only sell your technology within one industry, you have probably explained exactly how this software works so many times that you could do it in your sleep. In this case, you don't need to research technical details about your software, but you do need to research the potential client to whom you are presenting. Make an effort to understand their position in the industry, what threats and opportunities are before them, and what their biggest challenges are at the moment. Then, you can target your presentation so that it specifically addresses their needs, and how your product can fill them.

If you are starting fresh with a topic: let's say you are taking a class at the local college and you have to give a presentation about color theory, but you know nothing at all about it, then you'll have to do a lot of digging before you can begin to put a presentation together. Make sure you have finished your analysis of the rhetorical situation and that you understand your audience so that you can focus your research on what that is appropriate for that audience and situation.

Information sources
Make use of all different kinds of resources. Many people like to start their research on an unfamiliar topic over the internet. This can be a great place to start, but use caution: the internet is not always a reliable source. Make sure you use reliable sites with up-to-date information. Whenever you find a new piece of information that sounds out-of-place or surprising, double-check it against another source. Check the citations on articles you read (and good, reliable articles should have citations and references), then go and find the reference articles and read those, too. Depending on the amount of time and the depth of knowledge you need, you could also interview experts in the field.
An interview does not have to be a big production. If you are working on a presentation about color theory, you might happen to know an artist or interior designer who would be thrilled to share some of their knowledge. If your company has a department that specializes in the topic of your presentation, you should absolutely schedule a meeting to speak with your in-house expert.
Other sources of information
We have discussed the internet and interviews as information sources, but there are so many other sources, also. Take some time to consider where else you might learn about your topic. If you are presenting for your company about something within the company, chances are you have some sort of corporate internal data tracking system. For example, if you want to find out how many hours employees spend on some routine administrative task so that you can present a proposal to streamline the way that task is performed, you can probably use your company's tracking information to pull up exact reports about time usage.

You can also use scholarly articles, newspapers, magazines, and informal interviews. Consider conducting informal public opinion surveys--simply ask the people around you what their perception is about a particular issue.

How much is too much?
At this point, you may be wondering just how much work you need to do before you can give your presentation. The amount of research needed will depend on your level of expertise, how much depth the audience wants, and what their background is. Clearly, if you are presenting to a panel of experts, you'll need to have a stronger background than if you are giving a general overview to people outside the field.

Whatever the situation, you'll do better if you prepare yourself with a greater depth of knowledge than you actually expect to need. Your audience will not need to be drowned in information, but they might want to ask you questions outside the scope of your prepared presentation. Extra research also prevents you from making incorrect assumptions and accidentally providing misinformation--which is never a good idea, but it can be a big embarrassment and cause a loss of credibility if you have experts in the audience who will point out your errors.

Don't drown in information
Now that we have stressed the need for deep research, we need to take a moment for a reality-check. Although you want to be an expert on the topic, make sure you stay focused on the central problem: If you want to get your property management company to step up their exterminator visits, you don't need to write a Master's thesis on pest control. But you would do well to find out how many residents in your building have reported problems, which pests they are seeing, if they perceive that there is an upward trend in the problem, and if there are potential legal liabilities for the management company should they ignore the problem.

Focus on the sale
You may think that you are not giving a sales presentation and therefore, you don't need to be convincing, but it is difficult to imagine any sort of public-speaking engagement where you aren't even slightly trying to persuade, cajole, convince or sell something. Even if you are just presenting your department's numbers for the month, you still want to "sell" the idea that your department is either performing well and deserves recognition, or that it is in need of extra resources and attention. Just paying the slightest attention to salesmanship can really help motivate you to put more of your personality into the presentation.
Don't go overboard--by salesmanship we're not talking about "Crazy Dave's Discount Mattress Madness" commercials or anything like that, we just mean 1) getting enthusiastic about your idea and 2) framing the idea in a way that is meaningful to your customer, and helps them understand how it matters to them. You can do this using tools mentioned earlier in this section--research their problems and challenges and present your idea as a solution.
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