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Laura A. Sullivan is head of public services at Northern Kentucky University, and a former part-time instructor of public speaking

steps in preparing a speech or presentation


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Preparing great speeches: a 10-step approach.

Laura A. Sullivan is head of public services at Northern Kentucky University, and a former part-time instructor of public speaking; e-mail: [email protected]

Communication skills are a standard re- quirement in library job announcements; speaking skills, however, can be more difficult to acquire and discern. Librarians are faced with a variety of speaking situations daily; we assist users at service desks, discuss problems with colleagues at meetings, present facts to library boards, and express opinions on committees, to name a few. Effective speaking skills are essential in these instances, but when faced with the formal speech or paper presentation many librarians, lacking public speaking expe- rience, are justifiably apprehensive at the prospect.

In working on my own public communication skills, I have relied on my past education, teaching experience, advice from various colleagues, and trial and error. For those testing the water for the first time, the following ten steps are suggested as an easy and organized way to prepare a speech or paper.

1. Know your audience

2. Know the occasion

3. Select a topic

4. Select a purpose

5. Gather potential content

6. Gather more content than actually used

7. Organize content

8. Phrase the speech

9. Prepare visual aids

10. Practice, practice, practice 1

The ten steps are from Steven Brooks, a former Communications Department faculty member at Northern Kentucky University. I have further developed these steps and hope the information you find here will be helpful to you as you prepare a speech or paper.

1. Know your audience. Whether you are presenting a paper or giving a speech, you need to analyze your audience first and foremost. It is easy to alienate an audience by not examining the characteristics of the group, what they know and what they want to know. Be aware of the audience’s attitudes and beliefs in general, toward you and the topic. Consider age, socioeconomic status, and educational level. For example, if you are addressing a veteran group of administrators on a management topic, covering the basics of management would undoubtedly be boring and possibly insulting. There are numerous other factors crucial to analyzing an audience, but the time spent on this background check is necessary for the success of your presentation.

2. Know the occasion. As you scrutinize the audience, think carefully about the occasion. Are you a keynote speaker? Presenting a paper? Introducing a speaker or chairing a panel? Each situation is different and requires preparation tailored to the occasion. Occasion analysis includes looking at room size (i.e., whether there are enough chairs for everyone affects the comfort level of the group which in turn affects its response to your message), the arrangement of space (can everyone see you?), and the acoustics (there’s nothing more exasperating than having to strain to hear a speaker). Be conscientious about time limits too—if you are allotted 15 minutes, then prepare your speech or presentation accordingly. Also, make sure your message matches the occasion. It would be inappropriate, for example, to speak about a serious topic at a happy event.

steps in preparing a speech or presentation

Madame Curie On The Cost Of Science.

She discovered radium. She coined the word “radioactive” and was the first to suspect it emanated from “atomic energy.” Twice winner of the Nobel Prize, her discoveries led to the development of radiation therapy for the treatment of cancer. Yet in spite of her wide acclaim, Madame Curie often had to beg from the wealthy to fund her research. She understood the painful cost of science.

So do we. Since 1876, when the American Chemical Society first began to publish scientific journals, we have consistendy offered them at affordable subscription rates. ACS journals cost, on average, about 50%* of the price charged for competitive publications in our discipline. And we are committed to continuing this tradition, without compromising the quality of science we publish.

Today, the chemical sciences are advancing at a staggering rate. And we’ve increased our page budgets and our publication frequencies to keep pace with the increased flow of critical research. Yet the price of our journals remains comparatively low, especially when you consider the quantity, timeliness and exceptional value of the information. Write or fax ACS Publications and we’ll send you the most recent cost analyses for our publications. Please include your suggestions about how we can serve you better.

We’re working hard to provide tomorrows landmark scientists with the means to afford today’s research.

* According to a report in the April 15, 1994 issue of Library Journal, the chemical sciences had an average price per journal of $1,106.

3. Select a topic. Selecting a topic can some- times occur first, stemming from the audience and occasion, as in the case of a paper being accepted for a conference. If you need to pick a topic, however, be sure it is one that is inter- esting to you. It is also a good idea to be a little more knowledgeable about the subject than your audience, but interest is crucial. If you do not have enthusiasm for the subject matter, neither will your audience.

4. Select a purpose. For this step, deter- mine the general purpose of your speech or presentation. Are you informing, presenting, or entertaining? Beyond the general purpose, decide on a specific purpose, what you want your audience to spe- cifically think or do (e.g., I want my audience to under- stand the three benefits of holding a faculty workshop on preparing library assign- ments). It is helpful at this stage to write down the central idea or thesis statement of your talk as well (e.g., library censorship is increasing).

5. Gather potential content. If you are presenting a paper, you have already done this step. If not, this is the research phase where you gather information through printed sources, interviews, discussion with others, and your own expertise.

6. Gather more content than actually used. Sort through your material choosing only the strongest and best material for your talk. This step allows you the luxury of editing and, if need be, recognizing any information gaps that need to be filled.

7. Organize content. The importance of this step cannot be stressed enough, for both speeches and paper presentations. Many presenters do not realize that presenting a paper does not mean the paper is read, word for word, at breakneck speed. Rather, the “information has to be recast for the new medium. Don’t be bound by the flow of your paper.” 2 This means organize your ideas based on the audience, occasion, and purpose of your presentation.

Follow the standard organizational format of introduction, body, and conclusion, which translates into the standard public speaking formula:

• Tell them what you’re going to tell them;

• Tell them;

• Tell them what you’ve told them. 3

Outline the body of your talk first, limiting it to three or four main points with sufficient supporting material to back up those points. Too much information can lose an audience; well-organized key points help an audience re- member them and allow for easy note-taking. Also, if presenting a paper, your goal is to whet the appetite of the audience with key ideas so they will want to get a copy of the full paper to read at a later time. 4

After you have outlined the body of your speech or paper, prepare the introduction and conclusion. Your introduction should start out with an attention- getter which can be an anec- dote, a quotation, a question, a joke, or whatever is appro- priate for the topic and audi- ence.

The introduction is also your opportunity to build rapport between you and the audience; tell them why your speech or paper is relevant to them and that you are glad to be speaking to them. A colleague related to me an opening remark by a speaker which did not serve to build rapport between her and the audience, even though she probably intended it to. The speaker said, in essence, “I’ve been to a hun- dred of these and, to tell you the truth, I really don’t want to be here; my feet hurt; and I don’t know what I’m going to say, but we’ll get through this together.” Please, treat your audi- ence as if they are guests in your home.

Once you’ve told your audience why they should want to listen to you, lead into your talk by briefly previewing the major points to be covered in your speech (tell them what you’re going to tell them).

The conclusion should include the summary of the main points (tell them what you’ve told them) and a final statement that leaves the audience with something to think about or remember (this will depend on the purpose of your speech).

For your talk, I suggest you write the main ideas of your introduction, body, and conclusion on 3 x 5 note cards that are numbered (in case you drop them). Many speakers write delivery cues on the cards, i.e., “slow down,” “emphasize this word,” “look at audience.” You can also indicate transitions on the cards so you will move smoothly from idea to idea. Overall, be sure your note cards are just that—easy- to-read notes on easy-to-handle cards—and not the speech written in full.

8. Phrase the speech. The previous steps involved preparing the message; now you are ready to work on delivering the message. Usually, a type of delivery most appropriate is the extemporaneous delivery. With extemporaneous speaking, you are thoroughly prepared and practiced, but the exact wording of the speech is determined at the time you actually speak the words. You want to avoid memorizing your talk; instead, know your key ideas and translate them into words as you speak. This means you have to think about what you are saying as you are speaking. Each time you practice, you may say your speech a little bit differently, but this allows flexibility and the chance to adapt to your audience if needed. Speaking extemporaneously can be difficult to achieve at first, but this style of delivery creates spontaneity, which can affect the receptivity of your audience to you and your ideas.

9. Prepare visual aids. Visual aids, if appropriate for your speech or presentation, can help your audience remember your points and clarify information. Speech textbooks usually emphasize the following when covering visual aids: make sure the audience can see the visual aid; show the visual aid only when you are referring to it; and talk to the audience, not to the visual aid. Also, practice with the visual aid; using visual aids can add to the length of a talk and can cause you to become flustered if you run into difficulties. Additionally, if you have audience handouts, distribute them at the end of your talk if possible. An audience’s attention can shift easily to a handout instead of staying focused on you.

10. Practice, practice, practice. Practicing your presentation or speech contributes directly to your success as a speaker. As you practice, consider both your verbal and nonverbal delivery. Vocal delivery includes volume, rate, pitch. Strive for vocal variety which is the variation of these elements—loudness/softness (volume), fastness/slowness (rate), highness/lowness (pitch). An expressive voice will engage an audience; a monotonous, flat voice will lose one. Also, remember that nonverbal delivery carries as much weight as verbal. Eye contact with your audience is crucial, and this means actually looking at audience members. Hamilton Gregory says to look at the audience 95 percent of the time in a friendly, sincere way, using the other five percent of the time to look at your notes. 5 As for posture, don’t slouch, and avoid shifting your weight from foot to foot.

Also, movement is fine, but only if it is controlled—your audience does not want to feel it is at a tennis match. Gesturing can be an effective element to your talk, but only if it’s controlled as well. Many speakers indicate on note cards when to gesture or move in order to reinforce a point.

There are certainly other elements of verbal and nonverbal delivery to investigate when practicing your speech or paper. Your goal is to sound spontaneous and feel comfortable, so time spent practicing is necessary. It is a good idea to practice in a situation as close to the real one as possible, and in front of friends or with a tape recorder.

Even if you follow these ten steps, you probably will experience some nervousness before or during your talk. This “energy” is an asset and evidence that you care about the quality of your presentation. However, if you have prepared well and practiced enough, you will lessen your apprehension considerably. Also, think positively as you prepare, rehearse, and actually deliver your message. Positive thoughts can make a difference in the quality of your speech or presentation.

If you keep these ideas in mind and follow the ten steps, you can have a successful (and relatively painless!) speaking experience.

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steps in preparing a speech or presentation

7 steps to prepare a speech in a surprisingly short time

Some of my clients are CEOs of large companies. I also meet many small business entrepreneurs. One common thread is that they’re very busy. Successful leaders are mindful about how they spend every single minute.

It’s no surprise then, that when these leaders are asked to speak in public, the one thing they are thinking is:

How do I prepare a speech in as little time as possible?

They realise very well that speaking well is important , and that preparation is necessary to deal with speaking anxiety . They just want to do it efficiently.

Today I’d like to share with you an excerpt of my CEO playbook for delivering speeches. The section on preparation contains tips that are useful to anyone looking to prepare a speech in half the time while doubling their impact .

I’ve compiled them into a handy list of 7 steps:

The 7 steps to efficiently prepare a speech

The steps are:

1. Define your purpose

For a speech to be effective, it must have a clear goal. A goal also helps you focus while creating the speech.

Ask yourself: do you mainly want to…

Note: these goals may overlap, and one does not exclude another. But one must be your main goal.

2. Know your audience

In order to connect with your audience during speeches, it is important to be able to place yourself in their shoes. Only from this perspective can you truly communicate understanding and establish rapport.

To know your audience is to engage your audience.

The Empathy Map is a handy technique from the world of user experience and marketing, where it is used to better understand potential or existing customers. It works remarkably well when you prepare a speech, too.

empathy map

The big idea is to go over the different areas in the map and come up with the elements that create your listeners’ mental world in relation to the topic.

Suppose you are to deliver a speech on the use of sugar in processed foods. Some questions the empathy map would trigger are:

Note that the answers to some of these questions will overlap. Don’t worry about that — this is just a brainstorming tool to trigger relevant information stored in your memory. The point is not to organise information in any neat way.

Try it, even if it’s for 5 minutes! You’ll be surprised how helpful the answers are for:

3. Add significance

Why significance is key when you prepare a speech.

Crafting any good story starts with the why . What’s the point exactly?

There’s a saying in public speaking: you win the heart before you win the mind. Knowing the  why of your speech is essential in accomplishing that.

Speakers engage an audience by being significant; by creating meaning. Audiences feel engaged when they have the feeling the talk is also about them. A great example is Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. The audience did not come to see Martin Luther King, they came because they identified with his ideas. They felt his speech was about them, their lives, and their dreams.

That explains the importance of step 2: Know your audience. You can only add significance if you have a clear image of the receiving end of your speech.

How to find your speech’s significance

To find the significance of your speech, ask yourself the following questions when you prepare a speech:

4. Define your clear message

Today, people are flooded with information. There is an image circulating on the web which goes so far to say that a person today receives more information in a day than a person in the middle ages in his entire life!

steps in preparing a speech or presentation

True or not, we can all agree that in a device-rich world, the information intake has never been more intense.

How does that translate to speeching? Well: to make your speech memorable, I suggest you focus on extracting one key message .

Your key message should be as simple as possible, regardless of the complexity of the issues and topics at hand. It will consist of one or two phrases that express your main point.

If that sounds daunting, let’s look at a model that can help.

The Message House model is a time-tested PR tool to condense complex stories into a thematic ‘house’. This house is made of a set of three messages that together form the overarching key message (called the Umbrella Statement in the model).

The Core Messages on the second level represent your Umbrella Statement, but in greater detail. They can be supporting arguments, sequential steps to take, conditional statements, descriptive (think: who, what, where, when, why and how), or of another kind.

Finally, the lower part of the house provides evidence, proof points and support. This is the foundation of your story.

steps in preparing a speech or presentation

How to use the Message House

In some cases, your Umbrella Statement (that’s your key message) will be very clear to you. If that’s so, it’s useful to come up with the 3 Core Messages that make up the Umbrella Statement.

At other times, you’ll have 2 or 3 messages in mind as you prepare a speech. In that case, consider those your Core messages and start to look for the single Umbrella Statement.

Examples of Umbrella Statements and their Core Messages

5. Establish your structure

The way you organise information is essential if you want your audience to follow and understand your speech. Ideas must be put together in an orderly manner.

I therefore recommend every speaker to use an  outline as the backbone for their speech.

An outline is simply 10,000 feet view of your speech. It’s as if you would zoom out completely and see the major turns your speech takes.

Why use an outline?

That’s easy: our brains are simply not capable of creating quality content from beginning to end.

Compare it to cooking a meal. Imagine yourself standing in front of different foods. Without thinking ahead, you grab a couple of ingredients and start cutting, cleaning and preparing them.

Unless you’re an experienced chef, that won’t result in a remarkable meal, will it? Without a gameplan to prepare a speech, the end result of your creation will be underwhelming.

Here are a few general directions your outlines can take. These are based on effective storytelling principles:

After you’ve decided on the general direction, flesh out your outline. See if you can describe your speech in ten to fifteen bullets. Refer to your Message House (see previous point) to make sure your outline includes your Core messages.

What structure works best for your purpose? Do you have a preference? Try a few structures for your speeches and choose the one that is most persuading.

Related article: How to structure a victory speech in three steps

Next, integrate even more storytelling. Your bigger picture might be represented by a story, but can you integrate ‘mini-stories’ to illustrate specific points?

6. Prepare a strong opening and strong ending

Scientific research shows it again and again. If you ask people to rate a certain experience they had recently, they will base a lot of their opinion on how it began and how it ends. Looking back at an experience, whatever happens in the middle seems to carry less weight for us.

A classic example is a visit to a restaurant. Smart restaurant owners focus extra on doing two things impeccably: the welcoming and the dessert. Although they pay great attention to the overall experience, of course, they know that a sloppy greeting of their guests, or a below-standard dessert, can easily spoil their guests’ memory of the whole evening.

For you, it means it’s smart to think twice about how you open and how you close.

Ideas for a strong opening

Here are a few angles to inspire you in crafting your opening:

Ideas for a memorable ending

7. Rehearse

1. write out, practice and tweak (optional).

At this point, you could write out your speech in full text – if you have the time.

Read your text out loud for a few times until you’re comfortable with the content. You will probably still tweak a few parts.

If you don’t have the time, or you feel comfortable working with just bullet points, feel free to skip to step 2!

I do highly recommend you write out your opening and ending.

2. Bring back to bullet points and practice again

Once on stage, you don’t want to hold the full text of your speech in your hand. You will be tempted to look at it often, which will break your connection with the audience.

So now, reduce your text to a list of main points, keywords, facts and anecdotes. And practice your speech again. Refer back your outline from step 5 for the general structure.

This will also help you memorise the speech completely by heart faster.

Do I have to know my whole speech by heart, you ask?

My answer is: not necessarily. But as just mentioned, do know your opening and ending from the inside out.

3. Take your practice to the next level

Here are my rehearsing tips for the best results:

That’s it!

Although I could elaborate on each on the above points, this provides you with a larger plan to optimally prepare a speech.

Which point(s) do you find especially helpful? Maybe you have a point to add? Do let me know in a comment to this article.

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Activist Guide

5 Simple Steps for Public Speaking

Giving a talk or presentation about animal rights? Follow these five steps to make sure you give an informative and effective speech every time.

Step 1: Research and Preparation

Consider the audience that you will be speaking to, and make sure that the tone and information is appropriate for that audience. Try to put yourself in their shoes, and think about what you want the outcome of your speech to be (e.g., to get people to go vegan or to adopt an animal instead of buying one).

Learn as much information as possible about the issue that your talk is about . You can also e-mail [email protected] for additional materials.

Step 2: Writing Your Speech

Before you begin writing, make a list of two to five main points that you want to present. Write out each point in one or two sentences.

Your speech will be most effective if you plan your opening and closing statements and key transitions down to the last word. Organize the speech logically with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In other words, tell your audience what you’re going to tell them, tell them it, and then summarize what you’ve told them.

Here are some other quick tips:

Step 3: Practicing

You should know your speech well enough to speak naturally during your presentation and glance only occasionally at your notes. Here are some tips for practicing:

Step 4: Putting Together Visual Aids

Visual aids are an important aspect of your speech and will help make unfamiliar and challenging material more accessible for your audience. PowerPoint presentations, photos, charts, and videos can all help you get your point across.

Keep the following in mind:

Step 5: Handling the Q&A

A well-handled question-and-answer session can strengthen your credibility, demonstrate your knowledge, and give you a chance to clarify and expand on your ideas.

Now that you know how to prepare a speech, it’s time to get started. Where will you give your first public presentation? E-mail the Action Team  to discuss possible venues!

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Speech Critiques

Speech Preparation #1: How to Prepare a Presentation

Speech preparation is the most important element to a successful presentation , and also the best way to reduce nervousness and combat fear .

The Speech Preparation Series is a series of articles examining each of the six steps which are necessary to properly prepare for a speech.

These steps are briefly introduced here, and investigated in more depth in later articles:

1. Select a speech topic

This may seem like an easy task, but there are infinite public speaking topics. How do you choose the right one? How do you select a topic which is a perfect fit between you and your audience?

Your topic leads to your core message — the entire presentation aims to deliver this core message to your audience.

The second article in this series focuses on selecting a speech topic .

2. Create a speech outline

Your speech needs structure. Without structure, your audience will either wonder what your core message is or they will lose interest in you entirely. Sadly, this step is often skipped to “save time.” A planned outline is vital .

The third article in this series shows how to craft a speech outline and provides several examples .

3. Write the speech

Speech writing is an iterative process which begins with your first draft. Writer’s block can handicap speakers at this stage. The fourth article in the series discusses how you can avoid that trap to write your first speech draft .

Once the first draft is created, speech writing involves iteratively massaging your speech into its most effective form. Keeping your ego in check, you are wise to edit mercilessly . The fifth article in the series shows you how to edit your speech for focus, clarity, concision, continuity, variety, and impact .

Remember that speeches should be written for the ear ; adopting figures of speech will keep your speech from sounding like an essay or legal document. The sixth article in the series shows you how to add impact and beauty to your speech with rhetorical devices .

4. Apply gestures, staging, and vocal variety

At this stage, the words are ready, but that’s all you have — words. A presentation is not read by the audience ; it is listened to and watched.

The seventh article in the series explains how to choreograph your speech with vocal variety, gestures (micro movements), and staging (macro movements) . These elements should seamlessly complement your words and punctuate key phrases .

5. Practice and solicit feedback

Great speakers seem natural when they speak, almost as though they are speaking the words for the first time. Nothing could be more wrong. Rehearsing your speech makes you a master of the content. Soliciting feedback and acting on it gives you confidence that your presentation will be a success. The eighth article in the series explains how to achieve maximum benefits from your rehearsal time .

6. Self-Critique: Prepare for the next speech

Although listed as the final step in the process, it’s really the first step in preparing for your next speech. After you’ve delivered your speech, examine your performance objectively . This will solidify lessons learned as you prepare for your next speech challenge.

The ninth article in the series provides examples of questions to ask yourself as you critique your own speech .

The article series concludes with advice aimed at preparing to win a Toastmasters speech contest .

See the Six Steps in Action

Throughout this series of articles, I’ll be showing you how I applied these steps when preparing for one of my own speeches. My hope is that these practical examples will help you apply the techniques to your own personal presentation.

The speech I’ll reference is an inspirational speech I prepared and delivered for the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 2007 titled Face the Wind .

Watch it now, and then read the articles to see how a short conversation with a friend months earlier led to this speech.

I would like to thank Chuck Denison for allowing me to use the Face the Wind video for this article series. Chuck has been the videographer for all recent Toastmasters District 21 contests. Videos are produced by Golden Memories Video Productions and available from him [ email ]. Chuck provides services to speakers who wish to produce a video to enhance their marketing strategy. On top of all that, he’s very friendly and professional.

Join the conversation. Share your experiences and describe what you do to prepare for a speech.

Next in the Speech Preparation Series

The next article examines how to select a speech topic which is the perfect fit for you and your audience.

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Great job~! I love the video. That speech is fantastic. Keep up the good tips.

This is a wonderful video. It held my attention the entire time.

Thanks so much. Madleyn O’Brien

This is a great speech and a great article. I would love a version of this article in PDF format that I could download and share with my English class. This is perfect for them.

Nice speech!!! I am learning MUCH from your articles. Dale

Ps. I appreciate your effort.

This is an excellent series of articles. Thank you for providing them to us.

I am very much interested in this topic as I do a lot of speeches in my church. This gives me opportunity to learn more appropriate way to prepare a speech to meet its occasion.

There is one more thing that person can do to get the ideas for speech. While speech can be written by a single alone, if you have your friends with you they can help you brainstorm the ideas. I think one of the steps to create a speech that makes an impact is do discuss with 2 or 3 people before you write it down. What do you say?

Yes, getting feedback from others is a great idea when planning your speech message. A thorough guide to selecting a topic is given here: The Secret of Choosing Successful Speech Topics

Structuring a speech is always difficult for us all. I think it’s one of the things that really distinguishes an outstanding speaker, particularly at organisations like toastmasters where so many speakers are already good deliverers. As Andrew recognises, the best speeches are often a cooperative effort, involving help from many other people. Jakub Pawlowski, Great Britain and Ireland speech finalist recently wrote his own blog entry on how to write a winning speech. A point he makes and I support is it often helps to involve other people. I know his success was partly founded on involvement from others.

Thank You,Wonderful Tips! I would really appreciate if it were possible to download these in PDF format.

This was the nice and really sensible tips about speech preparation. Thanx for the guidance

I appreciate your instructions on how to prepare and execute your speech. and I love your video of Face the Wind. very motivating.

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Speech Preparation #1: How to Prepare a Presentation via @6minutes — @pptVivo Dec 19th, 2013
Speech Preparation #1: How to Prepare a Presentation via @6minutes — @CoastalWomanmag Feb 26th, 2014
Speech preparation is the most important element to a successful presentation #speaking #leadership — @TarranDeane Jun 18th, 2014
My Speaking For A Lasting Impression training addresses this same topic. Request it! How to Prepare a Presentation — @corpswagger Nov 12th, 2014
Some helpful tips courtesy of DLS Communicators – Waterford. — @toastmastersinv Oct 20th, 2015
Gearing up for the speeches this year? Let’s get back to basics…. — @RHmToastmasters Jan 2nd, 2016
Speech Preparation: How to Prepare a Presentation by @6minutes — @leocrossman Jan 3rd, 2016
Speech Preparation: How to Prepare a Presentation by @6minutes #speech #speechtips #speechpreparation — @drjulieconnor Dec 30th, 2016
Speech Preparation: How to Prepare a Presentation by @6minutes #speech #speechtips #speechpreparation — Julie Connor, Ed.D. (@drjulieconnor) Jan 15th, 2017

4 Blog Links

Speech Preparation: How to Prepare a Presentation « Gilbert Toastmasters — May 9th, 2009

The Top 5 Blogs of 2009 | Success Begins Today — Dec 31st, 2009 » Blog Archive » Great post about speeches — May 13th, 2011

Tip: Príprava prezentácie – Ako začať « Good Presentation — Jan 5th, 2012

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The 4 most important steps when preparing your speech.

steps in preparing a speech or presentation

Preparation is the key to a good speech or presentation

The best speeches and presentations – the ones that are delivered effortlessly; the ones that we remember; the ones that make an impact  – are usually the result of thorough and careful preparation.

An iceberg is an excellent metaphor for a good speech or presentation. Most of an iceberg lies under water. Thus, we have the expression, “the tip of the iceberg”. The speech or presentation is like the tip of an iceberg because that is what the audience sees. What the audience doesn’t see – the preparation – is like part of the iceberg beneath the water.

In an ideal world, we would have days or even weeks to focus on an important speech or presentation. But we live in the real world. Time is often short and we have many obligations. Nevertheless, you owe it to your audience to give a speech or presentation that is worthy of their time.

With that in mind, I would like to share with you a simple, but powerful, four-step exercise that I do every time I have a speech or presentation. The exercise usually takes between 25 and 45 minutes. It is time well spent because, at the end of it, you should be much clearer about the things that you will cover in your talk.

Before you begin

Before you begin the exercise, you have to do something that might seem counterintuitive: turn off the computer. Yes, you read that correctly.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not a Luddite. I love technology. I have a Smartphone, tablet and laptop. I have helped develop an app and use a Fitbit. I am active on social media and fairly up to date with the latest trends in the tech world. But the computer is a tool, and like any tool, it has to be used for the right job at the right time in the right way.

Too many people make the mistake of firing up PowerPoint or Keynote or Prezi and adding slide after slide full of details. You have to resist that temptation and take a step backwards to get some perspective on your speech or presentation.

Alan Kay, the renowned American computer scientist said it well:

If you have the ideas, you can do a lot without machinery. Once you have those ideas, the machinery starts working for you. … Most ideas you can do pretty darn well with a stick in the sand.

This exercise is all about getting the ideas right . So put away the computer and get some good old-fashioned paper and a pencil or pen.

Step 1 – Have “eagle vision”

An eagle’s eye is a marvel of nature, up to eight times more powerful than a human eye. As it flies, an eagle can survey a large amount of territory. It can spot a rabbit or fish at a distance of up to three kilometres and when it does, it can keep that prey in perfect focus as it swoops in to catch it.

As a speaker, you can do the same thing – metaphorically – as you prepare for your talk.

There are three cornerstones to any speech or presentation: the speaker; the subject; and the audience. On a sheet of paper, make a large triangle (Δ). At the top, write your name; at the bottom left, the name of the audience; and at the bottom right, the subject of your speech or presentation.

Now, think about the relationships between the three cornerstones and write a few notes along the sides of the triangle about each. For example:

Speaker – Subject : What do you know about the subject? Why are you speaking about it? What expertise do you have? What insights can you share with the audience? Etc.

Audience – Subject : What does the audience know about the subject? Do they like the subject? Are they afraid of it? Are they bored by it? How is the subject relevant for the audience? Etc.

Speaker – Audience : What do you know about the audience? What do they know about you? Do you have authority over them? Do they have authority over you? Etc.

Once you have made your notes, you need to need to think about the speaking situation and how it might affect your analysis above. Just as the weather can change from day to day, so too the speaking situation can change for a speaker or an audience.

For example, imagine a CEO who has to give a speech at the company’s annual shareholders meeting. In Year 1, the company has had a great year. Profits are up, the company is gaining market share and the stock price has doubled. In Year 2, the company has had a terrible year. The new product was a disaster, the company has lost market share and the stock prices has tumbled. Same speaker, same audience, same subject. Very different situations.

Here are some questions to ask when thinking about the speaking situation:

Are these good times? Tough times? How does the situation affect the subject of the presentation, if at all? Will the situation affect your delivery? What will happen – for you and the audience – if the presentation goes well? What will happen if it goes poorly? Etc.

As you think about these questions, review the notes that you made and add or amend them as necessary.

The purpose of this first step is to get as clear a picture as possible of the key components of your talk. Like an eagle, you want a broad vision of the landscape before narrowing your focus on your target.

Step 2 – Define your objective

At the end of your speech or presentation, the audience should be changed in some way. What is your objective for the talk? What do you want the audience to do when your talk is over?

Some possible objectives for a business presentation: (a) you want people to invest in a project; (b) you want people to take some action; (c) you want people to be aware of certain information; (d) you want to bring about a change in the company.

Sometimes speakers just want the audience to know something and that is fine. But the most powerful speeches and presentations are the ones that move people to action. If you can get your audience to take some concrete action, you will have made an impact.

When thinking about what you want the audience to do, be specific. Write out the objective as follows: “At the end of the presentation, I want the audience to                                    .”

There are countless objectives that a speech or presentation might have. Give it some thought. Just remember that the objective should be clear and realistic. Audiences need to know what, precisely, they have to do, and they have to be able to do it.

Step 3­ – What is your key message?

A speech or presentation should be built around a key message. It is fine to have more than one key message, but I would only have two or three at most. The more messages you have, the more complicated your talk will be; the more complicated the talk, the less likely it is that people will remember it .

Too often, a presentation rambles along, leaving the audience confused as to what the point was. Very often, this is because the speaker has not thought clearly about the message and so did not construct a coherent talk.

Think about what you want the audience to remember even if they forget everything else that you have said. Then, write your entire presentation in one or two complete sentences. Not bullet points! The purpose of this step is to help you get to the heart of what you want to say.

When you can condense your speech or presentation into a single sentence or two, the message is clear in your mind. Then, when it comes to building your talk, as you think about adding a slide, a statistic, a story, a chart, a graph, etc., ask yourself whether it supports the key message. If it does, it can stay. If it doesn’t, you might want to save it for another talk.

Step 4­ – Why should the audience care?

A speech or presentation is never about the speaker or her product or service or company. It is always about the audience . When speakers put the audience first, that’s when great things can happen with a speech or presentation.

The final step of the exercise is to be clear about why your audience should care about your key message? Why is it important for them? List the reasons. If you can’t think of any, you have a problem. Either you are giving the wrong talk to this audience or you are speaking to the wrong audience. But if you know the reasons why the audience should care, you have the basis for a meaningful speech or presentation.

In this regard, it’s worth remembering the humorous, but insightful, comment of the late Ken Haemer, former Manager of Presentation Research at AT&T:

Designing a presentation without an audience in mind is like writing a love letter and addressing it: “To Whom It May Concern.”

Even if you do not have a lot of time to prepare a speech or presentation, the foregoing exercise will help you clarify your ideas about your talk. Ultimately, this will save you time as you design it and will help you deliver a message that is clear, memorable and relevant for your audience.

If you liked this, you might also like:

5 Easy Ways to Prepare Your Next Presentation

The 8-Step Guide to Approaching Presentations with a Journalistic Mindset

When it Comes to Presentations – Less is More

John Zimmer

John Zimmer

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steps in preparing a speech or presentation

Ariel Green

15th May 2018 at 2:34 pm

steps in preparing a speech or presentation

16th May 2018 at 9:06 am

HI Ariel. Thanks for the comment. Glad you found the post useful.

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