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How to Structure a Presentation – Planning and Preparation

Many people find it very difficult to sit down and write a speech or presentation. What is needed is a clear structure to help you in your planning and preparation.

Audience, Audience, Audience: Everything you say must be relevant to your audience. When you have decided on your topic, you must decide on the main objective of your talk. Why are you speaking to this audience? Who are they? What do they want to hear from you? How can you influence them? What change do you want to bring about in their thinking? You must decide on your central message and this must be relevant to your listeners if you are going to make an impact. Everything you say must support your central message.

Before you start to write your speech, you need to do some brainstorming to decide on your main points. Write down as many points as you can think of that will support your objective and your central message.

When this is completed, you need to prioritise. Many speakers make the mistake of trying to cram in too many points. This is a fatal mistake. If you do this, you will lose your audience.

The advice is to choose 3 or 4 main points from your list which you think will support your objective and central message best. These points will form the body of your speech.

You are now ready to begin writing your speech. Every presentation should have three clear sections.

Opening; Body; Conclusion.

While your main points will be in the body of your talk, the opening and conclusion are probably the most important.

The Opening: The opening comes immediately after your acknowledgement. It is so important because this is the point where you must grab the audience’s attention. It is the hook. If you don’t capture the audience’s attention at the very beginning, the danger is that they will switch off and it will be very difficult to get their attention later in the speech. It should set the scene and whet the appetite for more. First impressions are lasting and you only get one chance to make a first impression. So take it with both hands, leaving your audience wanting more.

There are numerous ways to open your presentation.

1. An Authoritative Quotation: Quotations add depth and a sense of profoundness to a presentation. They are often pregnant with meaning and if said slowly and with conviction, they are ideal to grab and audience’s attention and get them thinking.

2. Statement of Fact: This should be delivered expressively to be effective. eg. “Last year, 5 000 people died in Ireland as a direct result of smoking.”

3. A Question: When you start with a question, especially if it includes the audience, you get them thinking immediately. eg. “During the last 12 months, what did you contribute to help alleviate poverty and suffering in Ireland or the Third World?”

When you open with a quotation, statement or question, it is important to pause for a few moments and look at your listeners for impact. This also gives them time to think about what you have just said and to absorb its meaning.

4. A Story: A story is a wonderful way to grab an audience’s attention. It is particularly useful if it is dramatic or humorous and is drawn from your own personal experience. Never shy away from talking about yourself and your own personal experiences. Audiences love listening to such stories and can normally relate to them.

5. A Powerful Presentation Aid: This could be a visual aid, a real object or indeed a person or persons.

6. A Scenario: Paint a picture in your listeners’ minds. This could start with the words “Imagine” or “Picture”. eg. “Imagine sitting by a blazing coal fire on a bitterly cold winter’s night. The wind is howling through the trees and the rain is lashing against the windows. You snuggle up with a glass of hot punch and your favourite mellow music playing softly in the background.”

Preview: Whichever opening you decide to use, it should lead smoothly to your preview, when you tell your audience what you are going to talk to them about. The audience will then see the relevance of your opening. At this point, you may also briefly give your own opinion on the topic if you so wish.

The Main Body of the Presentation: As stated earlier, this should include three or four main points only, all pointing to a single message – your central message. This is where you will develop the facts and the arguments – making your case for the change you want to bring about through your presentation. Try to include smooth transitions between each of your main points to ensure that your listeners are not left stranded, not knowing where you’re going or where you’ve come from.

The Conclusion: So many a fine speech is ruined by a poor ending. Your close is most important. Last words linger. These are the final thoughts which your listeners will take away with them. You want your audience to go away on a high, having made a positive impact and leaving a lasting impression. It is most necessary, therefore, that your conclusion is memorable and climactic.

Suggested Endings: Summarise your main points, and focus on your objective at the end. Do you want to exhort your listeners to do something, to be motivated or simply to understand a message?

You could use a profound quotation which encapsulates your central message and leaves your audience thinking.

Another good ploy is to link your conclusion to your opening or mention the title of your speech. As in the opening, you could finish with a strong statement of fact or a question.

Whichever you choose, it’s important that your conclusion is strong, powerful and memorable, and that your presentation sounds finished. Do not let a good presentation fizzle out at the end. Use it to create impact and you will go a long way to fulfil your objectives.

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