Thursday, September 24, 2009

Speaking Skills: Planning

Part 2 of "Professionally Speaking: Six Keys to Better Presentations."

You’ve been assigned to give (or chosen to do) a presentation of some sort. You’ve been working on your mindset to channel your nervous energy, and you’re ready to begin planning and scripting your speech. A lot of people get stuck at this point. What do I say? How do I say it? Panicking at this stage can steer you wrong in two possible ways: not enough planning (thinking you can just wing it, or not providing enough content) or overplanning (and then sharing too much information for your audience to process). Proper attention to the planning stage (the second key) can provide a lot of confidence in your speech, which will make you much more comfortable when it is time to present it.

To begin the planning stages of your speech, I recommend asking yourself the following three questions, as they will guide you through the rest of your content:

  • Who cares? The answer to this question will reveal your audience. It is key to speak to your audience. For instance, if you are a software engineer speaking to a conference session of other software engineers, then you will be fine to assume a certain level of knowledge of the audience, as well as familiarity with lingo and abbreviations used commonly in that job. If you are speaking to a group of schoolchildren, however, you will need to explain things in much more basic terms and not use a lot of lingo. Also, knowing your audience helps you plan how to make your point, because you can figure out why they might care about your topic.
  • So what? Asking this question will help you absolutely crystallize your main point (or thesis) so that it is very clear and obvious. It will also help you get to the point in your speech. If a speaker is rambling with a long introduction, many details, and lots of stories, it can be very difficult to pick out their point. Your main point is the reason for the speech, and thus it should be apparent, clear, and stated several times in the presentation. For instance, if your presentation is about quarterly income reports and planning, your point might be that steps need to be taken to boost revenue (or cut expenses).
  • What now? The answer to this question will reveal the takeaway message that you want your audience to have. Again, it should be clear and obvious, perhaps stated as a call to action at the end of the speech (a call to action will be discussed in a later entry). Many times, the purpose of a speech is to persuade someone to your point of view, so you will want the take-home message to be a challenge to adopt your opinion, use a product, or try your method of doing something. In the example of the quarterly income reports, you might inspire your co-workers to turn in more billable hours for increased revenue. You can have more than one takeaway message, but keep them simple.

I find that asking myself these three questions helps me focus my speech plan and adapt it to my audience quite easily. Try it, and see how it works for you.

Next up: Outlining and filling in the content of your speech.

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