My experience as a presenter started early. I was a Boy Scout back in middle and high school and that meant I had plenty of opportunity to learn what didn’t work in the quest to lead and communicate. When you’re trying to lead a boy scout troop as a young man you have a challenge. A challenge in broadcasting, a challenge in describing yourself, a challenge in holding the attention of your audience. No matter when you start to learn to communicate to groups the basics are all the same.

Let’s set the context: I’m going to assume you’ve given group presentations before to say, 20 people. Maybe they went well, maybe you crashed and burned. Either way, here is my plan for getting from concept to stage to real applause.

#1 – Every Example at Work is Wrong… Audience First

Our experience in corporate america is a meeting room with people sitting down watching someone present a powerpoint deck that is sterile, full of words, and unrehearsed. This is what we are taught, by example, that a presentation is.

Now, when it comes to being delegated a presentation we are typically given the topic and told to present it to an audience. This is 100% backwards… let me tell you why. People come to a presentation to leave with relevant information about the topic, not relevant information to the speaker. Did you catch the difference? Read it again. The audience doesn’t want to hear about you.

No matter how you find yourself up on a stage or at the front of a room you need to know where to start. ALWAYS start with the audience.

You need to know about them. How old are they? What do they do? Are they experienced in your field? Do they have a particular political leaning? Are they hostile to you? And most importantly, what do they want to get from you?

I literally ask about these things. I ask the person running the meeting for information on who has accepted. I ask my boss what they know about the attendees. I ask about other people who have presented to the group.

Once I know about some of the people coming I’ll look them up on LinkedIn or in Outlook or whatever other internal information system I have available. This let’s me learn about them.

Once I have an idea for who they are I move on to the next step.

#2 – Figure out what they want from you

Now that you know something about your audience you can figure out what you have to give them. The most critical part of this step is to think about what they are interested in and what they want in regards to the “topic” you were handed. Think of what they would want you to present.

Don’t present what you want to present. Present what your audience wants you to present.

I am a visual note taker so I literally make a mind map of the interests of the audience, what I know that fits with their interests, things to highlight and things to avoid, and a bunch of topic ideas that fit with the audience.

#3 – Don’t make a “deck”

The third trap and opportunity is that I never make a deck. I make a visual aid. Now, you might say “Jeff, it’s the same thing” but here’s why I make the distinction. Most people who make “Decks” put way too much information on them. If your goal is to make a piece of reference material then by all means, make a piece of reference material. A reference document should not be used as the basis of a presentation. Presentations are about ideas and learning and bringing the audience to a new place. Reference material is something that you use at your desk later.

I never make a deck, I make visual aids

When you call it a visual aid it has a completely different meaning. It is an aid to help get the presenters point across or to help support the point. That’s exactly what you want to do.

Think for a minute about the most interesting presentations you’ve seen. Were they based on big, dense “decks”? Most likely not… Most likely they included visual aids. So steal from your best peers and do the same thing.

There are many, many styles you can use to mentally organize the visuals and decide on the content for the visuals. You can spend time researching on Google or you can just go with what you know about the audience and your message and put something together that works. Realize though that this is probably not going to be right the first time. I often throw out what I have created and start again because I learn more about what I’m going to present or what visuals work or the flow and what I’ve created doesn’t fit the flow anymore.

In Conclusion

First off, never use those words (“In Conclusion”). Here’s the three steps for you one more time:

  • Every Example at Work is Wrong… Audience First
  • Figure out what they want from you
  • Make a visual aid

I realize I’ve really avoided all sots of ways to build up your presentation. How to connect with your audience. How to use your personal style and to be funny without using humor. How to hold yourself as a presenter and how to get progressively better. Until we have time for that I have two nudges for you:

  1. Start practicing
  2. I am available to help you, if you ask


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