Author: Pascal Heymann
So you’re supposed to give a presentation. Okay. But where do you begin? How do you determine what you will say in your presentation? Let’s start with the finish line: your goal.
This is the type of assignment we are used to getting in school or university: Give a 10-minute presentation on the topic of penguins. Oh dear. So you’re meant to speak about penguins for 10 minutes. Or about Arsitotle or photosynthesis or whatever other topic. Let’s stick with penguins, they’re cuter.
The challenge with this type of assignment should be obvious: A topic alone isn’t really helpful when you’re trying to fill 10 minutes. A topic encompasses pretty much anything that somehow relates to it, so way more than would fit in a mere 10-minute presentation. This is a challenge people don’t face just in schools or university, many business presentations begin with an empty sheet of paper that’s difficult to fill due to the abundance of possible content. Time alone is not a sufficient limiting factor for writing proper presentations.
In these situations, there are two possibilities:
1. You blindly begin writing something about penguins until the 10 minutes are filled.
2. You define the goal of your presentation and use the 10 minutes to achieve that goal.
Let’s be honest: The majority of us are guilty of choosing option 1. I did the same thing when I was still at school. The reason: I never knew about option 2. The teachers never taught us and I only learned it many years later.
That’s why I spent years sitting in front of empty sheets of paper, writing down random information about penguins until I hit the time limit. Done. Quick and painless, but also shit and most certainly uninspiring. That all changes with a goal.
What do I mean when I say ‘a goal’? Simply put: Every time you enter the stage (even those 4 square feet at the front of the classroom count as a stage) you should have a reason for standing there. This reason goes well beyond “If I don’t do this, I’ll get a bad grade/no promotion/etc.” Presentations are a tool we use to achieve something.
The first questions you should therefor ask yourself is:
“What should your audience learn about penguins and why?”
In other words: Why is he topic even relevant for your audience and what value can you add to their lives (independent of school/uni/work)? What do you want to change within your audience?
When I teach at schools, this bit always gets me sceptic stares. “But Pascal,” they usually start shouting, “the topics we have to present are always so boring and useless, we can’t answer those questions.” That’s a challenge I gladly take! Whether it’s mechanics, the industrial revolution or sponges (the animals), I’ve yet to be confronted with a topic that I couldn’t define a goal with.
The technique I use to make this easier is to complete the following sentence:
The audience should realise/discover/become aware …
Let’s look at our example of penguins. What could the goal of the presentation be? There are many options:
1. The audience should realise how dangerous global warming is to penguins.
2. The audience should become aware that penguins can act role models for our moral behaviour.
3. The audience should discover why penguins make bad pets.
4. The audience should discover that penguin meat is incredibly delicious.
You’ve probably notStep 1: Define the Goal of Your Presentationiced that all these examples only explicitly answer the What? question, but each of these also implies an answer to the Why? question. For instance, we are generally concerned about the well-being of animals (especially when they are cute), which makes the effects of global warming interesting for us. Or for instance, most of us strive to live moral lives, so we like to take inspiration from role models. The Why? doesn’t necessarily need to be written out, but you should always be aware of it.
Once you have your goal defined, filling 10 minutes with valuable content becomes easy. All you then need to do is summarise everything that points towards your goal. That doesn’t just make it easier for you, it also makes it more interesting for your audience. Nobody wants random bits of incoherent knowledge, statistics and information dumped on them.
Presentations are like a trip. Once you have a sight you’re ready to embark on your journey. Have fun with it!
For more speaking advice, check out our short videos!