Plan a Presentation for Success – 12 steps

Too many people, when they hear the word presentation, reach for their computer and switch to PowerPoint. That’s because they feel they are making progress by making slides. They pull information together, they lay out slides and admire their handiwork. Only then do they try to tell a story.

This is NOT the right way to plan a presentation.

“Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”

Alexander Graham Bell

What to do instead: Plan a presentation using a story, a script and a plan

The process for presentation planning should be more like that of movie making. When you make a movie you only start filming at the end of the planning process. Before filming you have a story, a script and a plan.  It should be the same when you plan a presentation.

The better you plan a presentation, the easier it is to be successful. At first, it may feel frustrating that you are not writing slides. You may spent hours staring into space or doing research. But investing in proper planning will pay back many times over.

In the end by planning your presentation properly you will spend less time writing PowerPoint slides. You will spend less time editing and you will spend less time searching for a way to link the sections of your presentation together. You’ll also discover that practising and rehearsing is easier.

“There are three things that are important for a film. Number one is story, number two is story, number three is story. Good actors can save a bad script and make it bearable, but good actors can’t make a bad script good – they can just make it bearable.”

Mark Strickson, TV producer & actor

How to plan a presentation #1 – Have you taken AIM?

What is the first step in planning a presentation? AIM is an easy-to-apply first step so that your presentations are easier to prepare.

What typically goes wrong. Most people create presentations without proper planning. They start writing slides before they have decided what they really want to say.

Why is it important to plan a presentation?  Without an effective presentation plan you waste time and energy.   

What to do instead. Use AIM. Start with a blank sheet of paper and write the three letters A.I.M. across the top. In each of these columns start writing what you know about A: Audience, I: Your intent, (or Purpose) and M: your take-away Message.

See the next three paragraphs for more detail on A, I and M.

“Proper planning prevents poor performance”

James Baker, former US Secretary of State

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Presentation planning #2 – AIM Part 1: AUDIENCE: Who’s your audience and what do they need?

Shortcut Summary: Your audience, not you, should be centre of attention in your presentation. The better you understand your audience, the better your talk will be.

What typically goes wrong: When people give presentations about their latest project, they talk about their latest project. If they are reporting quarterly results, they report quarterly results. If they are speaking about their new business, they tell the audience about their new business. If explaining a new piece of regulation, they talk about elements of that regulation.

The problem with this approach is you are not including your audience in your talk. And if you don’t include your audience, your audience will be disengaged.

Why does this matter?  Audiences are selfish. They like being talked about.

What to do instead. Your talk should be about what your subject means for the audience. For example these are good titles for a presentation:

  • “What you can learn from our latest project.”
  • “Our quarterly results and what they mean for your department next quarter.”
  • “How our new business can make you money.”
  • “What the new regulations mean for you and your clients”

To do this, you must understand your audience. That means asking questions about them and getting under their skin. For example, some questions you may have could include:

ABOUT BACKGROUND

  • Who is coming to this talk?
  • What common reference points can I use?
  • What experiences have they shared?

ABOUT MOTIVATION

  • Why are they coming?
  • What problems do they have?
  • What do they need and want?
  • What will make life easy for them?

ABOUT EXPECTATIONS

  • What would they like me to talk about?
  • What would victory feel like for them?
  • What will make them sit up?

ABOUT CONNECTING

  • What can I say that will show them I am on their side?
  • What stories will resonate?
  • How can I add value?

ABOUT EMOTIONAL POSITION

  • What frame of mind will they be in?
  • What should I avoid talking about?
  • What will make them feel good?
  • What can I say at the start to win them over?

ABOUT MAKING IT EASY FOR THEM

  • What specific language should I use?
  • How should I position what I am talking about for this audience?
  • What phrases will resonate?

The more you learn about your audience, the better you know them and the better you can plan your talk for them.

“Designing a presentation without an audience in mind is like writing a love letter and addressing it: To Whom It May Concern.”

Ken Haemer, presentation designer

Next Steps

  1. Before any talk, analyse the audience.
  2. Research them.
  3. Make sure you really know them and their needs before you start planning what to say.

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How to plan a presentation #3 – AIM Part 2: INTENT: What are you trying to achieve?

Summary: Decide early the intent or purpose to your talk. This will help you direct your efforts to achieve your goals.

What typically goes wrong: “I’m going to talk about…” is a typical answer to the question “Why are you doing this talk?” But talking about something is of no use to anyone. It is pointless.

For example these are bad intents:

  • “I’m talking about our new project”
  • “I’m talking about the new regulations”
  • “A pitch about our new fund”
  • “An introduction to ABCX co”
  • “Monthly board report”

Why does this matter? For a talk to work it requires a clear purpose. When you know your purpose you can harness your talk to achieve just that.

What to do instead: Decide your intent. For example, when I asked a Chief Financial Officer recently what was the intent of his presentation, he was clear: he said that he “Wanted to look like the next CEO of this business.” This clear purpose made it easy to help him prepare what he said, how he said it and how he positioned himself.

More examples of a good intent:

  • A Lawyer, when giving a talk about new regulations, was clear that she wanted “to help companies use the new regulations to run better, more profitable businesses”.
  • An HR director who was introducing a new expense system was clear that her intent was to “get people to use the new system by next month so they can get paid faster and with less effort.’
  • A fund manager who was pitching a first time fund to new investors had a clear intent of “getting onto their radar screens and securing a second meeting”
  • A company looking for a trade buyer had crystallised their intent into “creating excitement about the potential value of buying this business and demonstrate the risk of others buying it.”
  • An accountant at a well known firm had the intent with his monthly board reports to “Get them to recognise the value my team adds.”

Having a clear intent will make it easier for you to plan your presentation. Identifying that intent is also one of the harder parts of planning a talk.

“A talk is a voyage with purpose and it must be charted. The man who starts out going nowhere, generally gets there.”

Dale Carnegie

Next Steps

  1. Be absolutely clear on the intent of your talk.
  2. Summarise your intent in one line
  3. Use your intent as your North Star to guide everything you say and how you say it.

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Presentation planning #4 – AIM part 3: MESSAGE: What’s your one big take-away message?

Summary: Your presentation needs a take-away message. This means one simple message so when someone asks “What was that talk about?” a listener can confidently answer.

What typically goes wrong: Many presentations have titles such as:

  1. “Quarterly strategy report”
  2. “Project X”
  3. “Manufacturing update”
  4. “Annual results”

These are all topics, not messages

Why does this matter? These titles don’t help the audience. They only tell them something they already know. With a topic title you miss the opportunity of preparing your audience and getting them in the right mindset to be ready for your talk.

What to do instead: Identify a message that summarises your talk that you can use as its title. Keep improving the title until it properly captures what you want to say. For example:

  1. “Our strategy remains on track”
  2. “Launching Project X by December could double revenues next year”
  3. “Manufacturing: three problems we must address”
  4. “Profits up 5% this year despite Covid headwinds”

Then test your title on other people. Check if it generates the reaction you want.

“If you can’t write your idea on the back of my calling card, you don’t have a clear idea.”

David Belasco, theatre producer

Next Steps in planning a presentation

  1. Decide the title of your talk early.
  2. Check it generates the reaction you want.
  3. Use this to build the rest of your talk.
  4. Re-test your message against A.I.M.

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How to plan a presentation #5 – What are the three parts of your talk?

Summary: Your brain Is naturally tuned to hearing things in sets of three. If you can break your presentation into three parts then it’s more likely to be a success.

What typically goes wrong: Many presentations are like shopping lists: covering multiple topics and jumping from one idea to the next.

Why does this matter? In the end, a huge amount of information has been transmitted but little has been received.

What to do instead: Less is more in a presentation. Help your audience by giving them a structure. A three part structure is one of the most useful planning shortcuts that you can use.

Once you are completely clear about your intent and your message, start developing a three part structure for your talk. For example, if I wanted to give a talk that shared advice on how to present, I would consider using one of the following structures:

  • Mistakes other people make / Tips you can use / How to become a great speaker
  • How to define your messages / How to structure your talk / How to deliver your talk
  • What bad looks like / what good looks like / what you can do differently

In writing and speaking, three is more satisfying than any other number.”

Carmine Gallo, author

Next Steps

  1. Find your three part structure early.
  2. Use the structure to focus your efforts and guide your planning

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How to plan a presentation #6 – What is your story?

Summary: Use a story to underpin your talk. No matter how dry your subject, when you use a story you will make it more memorable and more effective.

What typically goes wrong As an expert, a typical presenter wants to share knowledge.

For example: A few years ago, I helped a lawyer give a talk to investors. This audience consisted of private equity executives who sat on their investee company boards. The subject was the 2006 Companies Act and the Duties and Responsibilities of a Company Director. A dry subject.

In her first draft, she reviewed sections of the Act and highlighted problems that directors may face. For example, “Section 172 of the Act, sets out your overarching duties as a director. You must act in the way you consider, in good faith, would be most likely to promote the success of the company for the benefit of its members as a whole.”

As you can imagine, it was not the most exciting of talks.

Why does this matter? A precise talk may not be an interesting talk. Your job as a presenter is to make the talk interesting and easy for your audience.

What to do instead Find a story that fits what you want to talk about.

For example, for the investor director talk above, we decided to title the talk “How to keep your nose clean and yourself out of jail” Then the talk was based around a series of situations that anyone in the audience might face. She did not refer to any particular section of the Companies Act at all. Her text was:

“Imagine this situation. You turn up for a board meeting. You are a 10% shareholder and you are a director. At that board meeting the CEO announces that the company is near bankrupt and needs more funding. What should you do? Do you absent yourself, having a connected interest. Or do you declare your interest as a shareholder? Or do you carry as normal assuming business as usual?”

By framing it as a story you involve your audience and you make it easier for them to process what you say.

“Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.”

Jean Luc Godard, film director

Next Steps

  1. Find stories to tell, narratives to bring your facts to life.
  2. Tell the story behind the numbers.
  3. The dryer your subject matter, the more important stories become.

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How to plan your presentation #7 – Have you asked WHY?

Summary: ‘Why’ comes before ‘What’ comes before ‘How’

What typically goes wrong: When a speaker knows a subject well, it is easy for them to assume knowledge and talk about the nuances of what they know. I often describe this as the ‘How’ of a subject.

For example, when speaking about a new engine you have developed, you might say that you made the pistons more accurately, that you mix petrol more precisely and you have added a new technique of managing engine performance.

Why does this matter? This is one of the most common mistakes that experts make when giving talks. They spend too much time explaining HOW something works, rather than explaining WHAT it is they are talking about and WHY it is important.

What to do instead: “We have designed a more efficient car engine that will get 100 miles to the gallon.”

“Start with Why”

Simon Sinek

Next Steps

  • Ask yourself “So What?” to everything you say
  • Check that you are clear why the audience will be interested.
  • Imagine someone in the audience asking “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM)

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How to plan a presentation #8 – Can you give a 90 second summary of your presentation?

Summary: The best way to plan your presentation is by speaking a c 100-200 word summary of your presentation. This summary will test the rigour of your thinking, the clarity of your ideas and the robustness of your plan.

What typically goes wrong: The average poor presentation meanders from topic to topic and is more like a data dump than a well organised talk. It is rich in information but poor in story, structure and planning. It will be hard to summarise that talk easily.

Why does this matter? Lack of planning = Lack of story = Hard for your audience.

What to do instead: Create a short summary of your talk to test your thinking

  • You can use your summary early in your presentation planning to test your ideas.
  • If you are working with colleagues you can share your thinking using your summary.
  • If you are planning a presentation for someone else, you can share your summary to test their reaction.
  • If someone else is preparing your presentation, you can use a summary to check they are on track.

Creating a summary is one of the most powerful ways to plan a presentation and will save you a huge amount of wasted time.

“If you can’t write your message in a sentence, you can’t say it in an hour.”

Dianna Booher, Author

Next Steps for Presentation Planning

  1. Test your ideas with a short summary.
  2. Use a critical audience.
  3. If it is not tight enough, keep refining your summary.

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Summary – how to plan a presentation for success

Start by planning, not by writing. This may feel counter intuitive, but you’ll make progress faster.

How do you plan a presentation for success? Try these steps:

  1. Use AIM as the first stage of preparing any talk
  2. A – Audience: Analyse your audience and understand their needs
  3. I – Intent: Be clear on the single purpose of your talk.
  4. M – Message: Decide your one take-away message from your talk
  5. Decide the three parts of your talk
  6. Create and perfect a 90 second summary of your talk before fleshing it out
  7. Answer the WHY questions in your talk before the WHAT or HOW questions.
  8. Imagine your audience asking So What? and What’s in it for me? throughout.
  9. Check your talk summary against your Audience, Intent and Message.

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