How to Prep for a Presentation
Jun 20, 2012 Clay Johnson

When I started writing my book, I knew that authors generally make more money from speaking than they do from royalties, so I wanted my talks on the Information Diet to be great. Before I first started my speaking tour for the Information Diet, I watched a lot of great speakers give great talks, and asked them how they gave such great talks. The universal answer is always: "I lock myself in my hotel room the night before and rehearse."

So how do great speakers like Larry Lessig prep and rehearse for a polished talk? I still don't know: when I asked him, he told me he locks himself in a hotel room for 2 days and I didn't get any more specifics than that. But after giving about 30 talks on the Information Diet since January, I can tell you how I prep and rehearse for a polished one.

Know the Scene

The first piece of prep you need to do should come weeks before you're scheduled to give your talk. Know what the room will look like, where you'll be, what the equipment will be like, and the structure of the event. Here's the bare minimum of the questions you should ask to anyone putting on the event:

  1. How many people will be there?
  2. Who are they, and what do you think they want to hear about?
  3. Will there be a screen?
  4. How big will that screen be?
  5. Will I have a microphone? What kind of microphone will I have? (over ear, wired, podium)
  6. What kind of slides can I present? Powerpoint, PDF, Keynote, Prezi?
  7. Will this be run off of my laptop or your system, and do I need to bring a dongle?
  8. Will I have a screen on stage to see the current slide?
  9. Can I also have a screen on stage to see the next slide (i.e. presenter's mode. super handy)
  10. Will this be recorded?

The last one's important because it means the talk you give is needs to not rely on external context. Your jokes need to be as funny to the viewer as they are to the audience member.

One thing I didn't understand for years is the dynamic going on between speaker and organizer. The organizer wants you to give a great talk, and will generally do whatever they can to make that happen. So don't be afraid to make a request. I always ask for a screen on stage to see the next slide, or the ability to use my own laptop (so that I can have that) and to date, I've never gotten turned down. So if you need something, ask for it.

Know your slides (at least one week prior)

There are many books out there about how to design great slides, and how to design a great presentation, but few about how you actually can become familiar with your slides. Check out Presentation Zen or any of Nancy Duarte's books for how you should design your presentations.

What I want to talk about, instead, is how to know the material you're presenting, and to get great at presenting it. Note that you should have completed all of this section at least a week before your presentation.

First, write the speech. Every presentation needs to tell a story to get across the point, and this will help you solidify your presentation's narrative. Go through each slide and write down what it is you're going to say on each one. Write it down. If it's more than three or four key points, and one of those points doesn't lead into the next slide, consider breaking the slide up into two, or rearranging the order.

Once you're done, do a rough draft presentation of your slides in front of a camera. It's OK if you're reading, but record yourself giving the presentation. Then watch yourself. Are there any places where you lose interest? That may be a place where you need to tweak the slide or your narrative.

Now, name each slide with a single unique keyword (unless its a duplicate slide, then using the same name is fine). Whenever you have a free moment, try and list those unique keywords from memory. This is a great thing to do in the shower, or as you fall asleep the night before, or relatively constantly up until the morning before your presentation.

Next, create a second presentation. This presentation should have exactly the same number of slides as your primary presentation. On each slide, type out the maximum 3-4 main points of its corresponding slide in your primary deck. This is your notes deck.

Do your presentation to a camera again. This time, instead of using your visual slides, do your presentation with the notes deck as a visual que of what to say and when to transition, but try and do it while looking as much and as directly into the camera as possible. Try and do this while you're standing up and not looking at your computer screen (just the camera). I do this by moving my notes deck onto my phone. This has the added benefit of it being accessible wherever you are for quick rehearsals.

Again watch the video you recorded. Figure out when you look down and need to read. Tighten up that messaging if you need to. Continue to do this until you aren't looking at your notes more than once per slide for transition and understanding what you're going to say next.

Do one more on-camera rehearsal for yourself with your presentation deck instead of your notes deck. If you need to have your notes, still, as training wheels, that's great. But the reason we didn't just put your notes into the "speaker notes" section of your favorite presentation software is because they're training wheels: the goal is to get you off of them so you can be present with your audience.

Test Audience (at least one week prior)

I tend to never find the time to do this, and find myself a much harsher critic on my public speaking than other people are. But it's still good practice to find somebody you trust to give you honest feedback on your presentation, and to test jokes and reactions upon. There's nothing like throwing a joke that you think is hilarious out there only to find that the audience doesn't find it funny to totally throw off the rest of your presentation.

The feedback that this person gives you isn't nearly as important as the data you collect by watching them react to your presentation. Either they're engaged with you or they're not. If you can't make your spouse not look at his or her watch, you're certainly not going to make a room full of people pay more attention to you than their twitter feed.

Take the feedback in anyway. Though your friends are usually untrustworthy. Most people view avoiding hurting your feelings to be a superior choice to being honest with you.

The Big Show

If you are travelling to give your talk, try not to travel on the same day you're speaking. Besides the unreliability of air travel, the TSA is great at causing you stress that can fry your brain and make your talk go poorly.

Try and get to the event in the afternoon the day before your talk. Ask the organizers if you can see where you're going to present, and if you can run through your slides. After that, lock yourself in your room. Go through your notes deck again, and give your notes presentations several times. Order room service. Give your primary presentation at least 5 times. Resist the temptation to change your presentation at this point. Your pre-show jitters are affecting your judgement.

Do not go out and drink. Do not have a heavy dinner. Avoid caffiene. Do not socialize unless it's to go get your speaker badge so you don't have to worry about it on the day-of. Go to bed early, trying to name all your slide keywords in a row.

On the morning of your event, a couple hours before your talk, go through your primary presentation one last time. Eat a warm breakfast. Get in the greenroom at least an hour before you're scheduled to go on stage. Do not clown around in the green room. Go through your notes. Do not check your email. Go through your notes. Do not check Facebook. Go through your notes.

20 minutes before showtime, shut down everything. Go to the bathroom. Relax. Take a deep breath, count to ten, and think about how you can be present with the audience. Clear your head and relax. 90% of the people presenting on that stage are not nearly as prepared as you are. Which means you're going to blow the audience away.

After your talk is over, stick around. Ask questions of other speakers. Be a participant, at least for a few hours. This helps other people know that you're accessible, and that's going to maximize the number of opportunities that arise as a result of your speaking in public.

Finally, don't forget to thank the organizers for their hard work. At large conferences, there's a lot that goes on that you don't see. A conference organizer's job is thankless, and a bit of appreciation to the people who are running your slides and wiring your mic go a very long way.

I'm sure you've heard it before, but I'll spell it out for you: Fewer things generate a higher return on investment for time spent than giving a great talk. Fewer things are more disrespectful than having that kind of opportunity, squandering it, and wasting a room full of people's valuable time because you didn't prep properly. So when you get an invitation to speak, be of service. The doors that will open to you because you gave a great talk are plentiful. I've used this technique for everything from my talks on the Information Diet, to Best Man toasts. It never fails. I hope it's useful for you, too.

Information Diet © 2011 Clay Johnson