A question I was recently asked whilst on a training assignment led to a lively and interesting discussion regarding how much planning and preparation is the ‘right’ amount. Of course, finding anything close to resembling the ‘right’ amount, is, generally speaking, an impossible task. It is essential to take into account the key variables which will affect the preparation you should do, and tie this in to the preparation you are realistically able to achieve to give it your best shot.
If you are carrying out a short presentation to a small, well defined audience who you are already familiar with, and have months to prepare, your planning may be relatively straightforward. You may already have the basis of your presentation, and be able to conduct thorough research to fill in the pertinent points which will sufficiently engage your audience and provide them with the value they are seeking. It is important to plan the outline and structure of your presentation, in effect putting together a storyboard, which you will then use to fill out the key points you will need to highlight.
Taking the initial idea of a storyboard and building this out, you will begin to develop an idea of the framework of your presentation and how the topic ideas, even ones that may initially seem disparate, will flow smoothly. A poorly thought through and weakly structured presentation will be evident to your audience, and may leave them feeling somewhat underwhelmed. A presentation which moves with clear progression and includes a number of interesting and thought provoking ideas, well knitted together, will be far better received and provide a much better sense of purpose for your audience, not to mention a far better feeling of satisfaction for yourself!
These principles rely on time and knowledge being present in abundance to do a good job. The tables may, however, be turned on you. As has happened to me in the past, being asked to conduct a lengthy and detailed presentation at short notice can be stressful and nerve inducing. This does not mean that the presenter isn’t competent in his or her area of delivery, but trying to put together a meaningful discussion which delivers value for your participants is not always easy if the presenter is given demanding deadlines. Add to this that many presenters will be doing so on the side of their ‘normal’ jobs, and you have a recipe for frantic, and often inadequate, preparation.
One thing you can do as a presenter is to ensure, as much as is practicable, you present on a topic with which you feel comfortable and have some pre-existing knowledge. If you are time pressured or have a heavy workload, try to avoid agreeing to speak on a topic with which you are unfamiliar. If you do end up in this position, try and leverage outside sources for assistance; friends, family, work colleagues and other industry practitioners can be invaluable sources of help and guidance , not only for your preparation but also to review and check work prior to delivery.
So how much preparation is ‘enough’? As a general rule it is good practice to have the bulk of your presentation content, as well as your logistics and any assisting visuals, prepared and ready at least a week before you actually deliver it. This gives time for fine tuning (not cramming!), but also allows you to practice the presentation. Going through it on your own in a room, or in front of family or friends, allows you to get an idea of what is working well, what doesn’t come off quite so nicely, and what you might like to change or amend.
There is also another crucial facet which will be aided considerably by a few practice sessions; timekeeping. By running through your presentation in ‘live’ mode, you will get a feel for how long it takes. This allows you to trim it down if necessary, or if a little short, to fill out any necessary sections with relevant content. Always try and remember to leave some time, where appropriate, for some questions and answers at the end of the session. The more engagement you can provide for your audience, invariably, the better!
This means it is not always necessary to spend weeks or months planning in advance. This may be music to the ears of some individuals, but also it is not an excuse to do little or no preparation at all! You don’t want to finish your session with lots of time to spare, no audience questions, and being stuck in front of a room of glaring eyes with nothing to say. It is essential to plan according to the situation, appropriately for the topic and the audience, and relative to your particular ability and knowledge base as a presenter.
It is not necessary to deliver the best presentation ever witnessed by man; but it is expected that you will deliver the best presentation you are capable of, to the highest standard possible.