Five simple steps to better pitches and presentationsJul 18, 2022
The biggest mistake most presenters make is often the first one.
I coach, write and develop hundreds of presentations every year. The first step in that journey is a sit-down with the presenter or communications team. That conversation usually begins with the six most insidious words.
“Here’s what I want to say…”
That phrase is what presenters think is the starting point of the process. That’s the mistake.
I’m not going to sugarcoat this. The vast majority of the keynotes, pitches, panels, and fireside chats I work on begin as bad pieces of communication. They’re often self-serving, crammed full of too much information, and boring, boring, boring. (They also overfill PowerPoint slides to distract the audience, but that’s another blog post).
The biggest reason these presentations are so off-target is that they’re developed on autopilot.
We learn to do many important things early in our careers – writing an email, hosting a meeting, or giving a presentation. Oftentimes, we learn those things in bits and pieces, cobbling together a personal process that makes sense for us. Over time, we follow that personal process over and over, going into autopilot in the way we develop and deliver.
But that jerry-rigged process is often faulty. It’s wobbly. It’s full of weird assumptions. So, when you start our presentation by thinking, “here’s what I want to say…,” you’ve fallen into the autopilot trap.
Luckily, there is a better way.
Over the years, I’ve helped leaders form everything from TED Talks and client pitches to annual addresses and bi-weekly numbers updates that deliver with impact. These are presentations that break through, get heard, and make a difference.
My secret comes in the form of a better process – five steps that transform every presentation into the best presentation possible. There are dozens of tools in each step that help you to customize your talk.
Time to break the autopilot habit…and say something worth listening to.
1. Ask why you’re presenting
Before you start scribbling down all the things you need to tell your audience, you need to do two things – ask why you’re presenting and who you’re presenting to. When you take these two steps, you’re smashing through the autopilot and prepping to deliver something amazing.
Why are you actually presenting in the first place? Oftentimes, you’ll answer with, “because I want the audience to understand this one concept I’m delivering.”
That’s not why you’re presenting.
You present to sell an idea, to change a mind, to create an impression, or to cause action. Delivering the annual company vision? It’s not simply to inform the audience; it’s to inspire them with a direction for the year ahead. Sharing the bi-weekly financial review? Again, you’re not just dumping numbers; you’re bringing context and showcasing your personal brand so your boss will think of you for that next promotion.
When you sit down to think about your next presentation, try this exercise – ask what is the very next thing you want your audience to do after they’ve heard your content. That’s a very big clue as to why you’re presenting your content.
When you understand why you’re presenting, you have a target for success. Build your thinking around achieving that target.
2. Determine who you’re presenting to
When it comes to your presentation or pitch, your audience is everything.
Without an audience, you don’t actually have a presentation. You have you…alone in a room or on a video call…talking to nobody and changing nothing.
Your audience is there to receive and do something about your message. They don’t do that if you show up and start talking without thinking about them.
I see this a lot with “case study” presentations. A client at a company gets invited to a big user conference to present their perspective on a topic. They get up on the stage and say, “good morning, it’s great to be here,” then start droning on about the background of their own company before revealing 47 slides on what’s happening inside their own company.
Nobody wants to hear this. Seriously. I was at a conference in May and watched the audience drip out of the main stage room halfway through two of these presentations.
What audiences want instead is content that is meaningful, relevant, valuable, and engaging. Make your presentation about them – how to empower them, how to nourish them and how to lift them. Your case study isn’t about your company; it’s about the lessons your audience can learn from your company’s recent journey. It seems like a small distinction, but it’s actually a massive shift. Don’t think about what you’re selling…think about how they’re buying.
To accomplish that, you need to sit down and think about who your audience is, what they value, and how they receive information. You need to map your audience. Pick up the phone or draft an email to a handful of potential attendees. Take the time to learn what they want from you. If you deliver that, you’re on your way to making a presentation that gets remembered.
3. Build a Blueprint
You have a clear understanding of what you want to accomplish and what you can say to your audience that helps you realize your goal.
Now you can think about what you want to say.
This is where I spend a lot of my time in coaching – helping audiences to understand their message and how to structure it in a way that people want to hear it. I spent hours at Cirque du Soleil headquarters a few years ago wrestling with a director until we landed on a Blueprint that told a good story. In the end, his structure (and engagement tools) left an audience crying for joy. When does that ever happen?
There are really four mini steps in this process, and they’ll leave you with a Blueprint – a detailed outline that many presenters use instead of a script.
Mini step #1 is “The Conversation.” This is where you sit down with a whiteboard and a colleague, and you write down every single thing you think you could say that would be of interest to your audience. Jot down every story, data point, or idea that you can think of. You’ll have enough information at the end of this for four full presentations.
Mini step #2 is “Clustering.” Here, you organize all of that information you’ve generated into a series of natural sections. I call these sections “Chapters” because they form the individual Chapters of the presentation you’re about to give. These serve as the key content of your presentation.
Mini step #3 is your “Point” – the single overriding message that you want your audience to remember. Audiences suffer from cognitive overload when it comes to presentations because we avalanche them with too much information. You need to give them an organizing idea, thesis, or principle to remember. That’s your “Point,” and you develop it by looking at your Chapters and thinking, “what is the message that ties all of this together.”
Once you’ve got your Conversation, Chapters, and Point, you need to write them all down in your Blueprint. This 2-3 page document outlines all of the key pieces you’re going to share with your audience in an easy-to-follow format. These days, more and more speakers rehearse with their Blueprint because it doesn’t force them to memorize a word-for-word script. Instead, you rehearse the Blueprint to sound more conversational and interesting.
4. Add engagement
By this stage, you have an actual presentation. Now you need to make it more engaging.
Audiences are tuning out of presentations at an astonishing rate. I watch them on Zoom calls as they scroll through their phones. I see them check out during boardroom pitches. If you aren’t meaningful, relevant, valuable, and interesting, your audience will simply give up on you.
Think about that for a second through the lens of a big-time, highly paid keynote speaker. Their presentations are full of engagement elements. Lots of stories, lots of interactivity – all built around a central idea that they want you to remember.
To bring your Blueprint to life, you have to add elements of engagement – storytelling, headlining, associations, interactivity navigation, and scan-ability. These are the little elements that launch your presentation to the stratosphere, snatch attention and have audiences want to hear more from you.
Here’s the one engagement tool you should be spending the most time on – the first minute of your presentation. Your audience decides just how much they want to listen to you in the first moments of your talk. You have to, have to, have to make those first moments something that causes people to nudge forward in their seats to listen to. Start with a story, deliver your Point, preview what’s coming up and show them how to succeed with your presentation. Want a better idea of how to deliver a compelling first minute. I created an incredible Instant Fix Mini Class to help you build a better first minute. You can check it out here for free.
Write less. Rehearse more.
When I coach people on their presentations, they often think I’m going to spend that time talking about their performance on stage or in front of a camera.
But that’s just the last step in your autopilot-busting process. Before that, you’re thinking about your goals, your audience, and your content.
You do have to present that content, and you can’t do it in a lifeless monotone. This is where smart, strategic rehearsal comes into play. When you rehearse more, you can inject personality, rhythm, and tonal variation into your talk.
Here’s a simple way to rehearse strategically. First, rehearse your entire presentation all the way through one time. Then stop. Figure out which Chapters, stories, and elements don’t sound quite right yet. Come back to each of them during short rehearsal sessions and only rehearse them until they sound amazing. A few days before your actual presentation, bring everything back together and rehearse the entire thing in front of a colleague or two.
One time. Short sessions. In front of people. That’s the simple way to make your rehearsal work.
Go beyond autopilot and become a presenter everyone wants to see.
If you want your presentation, pitch, or conversation to land, you have to realize that there is more to your talk than pushing words at an audience.
It’s about having a goal, understanding your audience, creating a Blueprint they can absorb, adding things that make the content memorable, and delivering it in a way that is powerful.
Replace your autopilot with these five steps, and you can change the world.