This post is completely inspired by Trish Khoo’s post on Preparing for Your Presentation. I was going to add a comment, but it got too long, so it’s becoming a blog post. Go ahead and read that first – it covers way more than I’m covering here, and it’s a well written article.
Trish suggests starting early, and I can’t stress that enough – but there’s some flavor to the timeline that has worked consistently well for me. As soon as I know I’m doing the presentation, I make an outline. Sometimes I make the outline in powerpoint, but usually I start with Word (or notepad, or onenote). This helps me get my story together and give me an idea of what I want to say. I’ll add notes on what I want to research. I’ll read through it dozen times or so over a few days and add or edit as needed.
And then I’ll ignore it for at least a few weeks.
I don’t know if I can recommend this for everyone, but (assuming I’ve started early enough), during the few weeks away, my brain has subconsciously worked out a lot of the details. Whenever I come back to the outline, I immediately see obvious edits and areas to clean up. Usually this is the time I shove the outline into powerpoint and make a skeleton slide deck.
Trish also suggests nailing your intro and having one big message. For me, these are the same thing. At this point, I spend some time thinking about “the one thing” I want to get across. I not only figure out how I’ll work the message into my intro, but I’ll figure out how I repeat the message throughout the presentation. This also means that I usually find really “cool” material that I remove from the presentation because I can’t make a strong connection from the material to the message. It’s a tough decision, but it helps make the presentation clear.
The last thing I do is turn the text / bullet points from my slides into speaking notes and make the slides more about the concepts and ideas I’m talking about. I may use screen shots or stock photos – it all just depends. One word of warning though – I see a lot of people pull keywords from their slides into a search engine and grab whatever photo shows up. Beyond potential copyright issues, often the picture has nothing to do with the actual subject (e.g. if you’re talking about working with Red Hat Linux, by all means, don’t show a picture of a random red hat as your bullet-point-replacement).
From there, I tweak, tweak, and then tweak a little bit more. I know it drives conference organizers crazy, but the “draft” I deliver to them a month or two ahead of the conference is rarely what I present at the conference. Sometimes parts of the presentation just don’t “click” until late. Of course, it’s possible to over-tweak, but I’d much rather give the best presentation possible for the audience than match what I temporarily thought was complete a month or two ago.
One more thing
The only thing not on Trish’s list that I want to add is that it’s really important to check out the room first. Try to watch at least one talk in the room you’re going to present in to get an idea of size (if it’s a long narrow room, take time to increase font size), or noises (so you won’t be as surprised if the kitchen is next door). Figure out in advance if you can put your laptop where you want, how you’ll pull off interactions, etc. As a last resort, if you can’t see another talk in the room, get there early, get set up, and get as much of a feel for the room as you can.
One more more thing
I’ll be fair. For keynote presentations, tutorials, and the like, I will always apply the above steps. It works for me, and I see no reason to change it. I think (hope?) it’s a reason I’m invited back to many conferences.
However, I give a lot of smaller talks (meetups, q&a sessions, etc.), and for those I prepare on a much lighter level – usually because I’m speaking on experiences or I’m confident I can wing it on the subject matter. It took a long time before I could pull this off, but I’m ok doing it now for some types of events.