The first step to speaking with impact is writing your way to clarity first.
In other words, if you wing it, it will suck.
The attention the audience gives you during a presentation is a sacred trust. The implicit social contract is this: I will give you my attention if you can entertain, inform, or motivate me with your words.
And in order to entertain, inform or motivate with your words, you must write your way to clarity first, before the presentation. Trusting that 'the words will come to you' when the spotlight is on you is a risky gamble that sells yourself and audience short.
Once, early in my career I gave a speech to several hundred people. Halfway through, I started a sentence without knowing where or how it was going to end. My mouth kept moving but the voice inside my head was like: "huh, look at that. you have no idea what you're doing right now." I had avoided the responsibility of preparation. I was a mess.
You deserve better. So does your audience.
Here are a few ways to write your way to clarity beforehand:
Start by answering the two basic questions of every presentation: what do I want them to know? What do I want them to do? If you can answer these two questions in a sentence or less, you’re 75% of the way there.
Focus especially on three areas where the impact on the audience of your presentation is the greatest: the beginning, the ending, and the transitions.
Write your introduction out word-for-word, even if you don’t manuscript the rest of the presentation. (Though you should, as you’ll see in a moment.) This is your one chance to make a first impression that resonates, so don’t leave anything to chance. Multiple drafts of an introduction will make it clear to you what shouldn’t be there, and that’s just as important as what is.
Same with your conclusion. The audience won’t remember most of what you said, but you can leave them with something poignant if you take the time to craft it.
The transitions of your presentation are like the ligaments and tendons of your body. These linking words and phrases are the connective tissue that make various parts of your presentation work together, rather than being a random assemblage of parts. Words like in the same way, or likewise help tie one part of your presentation to the other. Make the connections clear.
Manuscript the whole thing. That means to write a word-for-word recreation of your speech ahead of time. This is daunting. And rightly so. But the benefits of doing this work are two-fold:
It answers the first prerequisite of a becoming an excellent presenter: mastering your material.
It forces you to think deeply about each word of each sentence of each paragraph of what you’re trying to communicate. Once you write it out, you can edit, rearrange, and massage your words for maximum impact.
If you wing it, it will suck. Or, at least, it won’t have the kind of impact you’re capable of.
If you want to speak with impact, you have to write your way to clarity first.
June is Presentation Month at Trellis Group, and this is one of 8 short articles we'll publish this month. Each aims to make you a more effective communicator. If a friend or colleague could benefit, please send them this link to subscribe.