The most obvious question that comes to mind when you have to speak in public is: What am I going to say? But that’s really not a good starting point. Instead, start by answering these questions.
What does my audience want to know?
Effective presentations are as much a function of the audience as the presenter. So start by asking who will be in the audience, and what they already know and believe about the issue at hand (see Sections 4.4 and 4.5 of TELE’s new landowner engagement guide). Then, look for ways to connect to their knowledge. Even if your goal is to convey information that is new to your audience, try to start by answering questions that they already have.
What do I want them to take away from this presentation?
People are only going to remember 2-4 key points from your presentation. Be clear about what you want those key takeaways to be, and organize your material to drive them home. Identifying these takeaways also makes it much easier to “write” your presentation by providing a framework for choosing and placing content.
What do I want them to do?
We all hope that audience members like our presentation and use the information we’ve provided at some point in their lives. You can help that process along by telling the audience what you’d like them to do, both now and in the future. These suggested actions can be very specific (e.g., “remove all pest-infected trees ASAP”), or more open-ended (e.g., “consider how you might include more songbird-friendly plants in your garden”). Even if you think your call to action is obvious, say it out loud.
What’s my storyline?
Every presentation—yes, even an educational seminar—needs a storyline. Using a story line helps you set up an emotional journey for your audience, leading up to the motivation to act.
In its simplest form, a story line consists of (1) a “hook” that poses a challenge, fires the audience’s curiosity, and generates some tension; (2) the “buildup” which expounds on the protagonist’s efforts to overcome the challenge; and (3) the “resolution” which eases tension by providing a path forward. Here’s how this might work for an informational presentation about good management practices:
Opening hook: This sets up the contrast between actual and desired states to create emotional tension and fire curiosity. For example: “You want to get the most from your woods, but doing so requires active management, i.e., an investment of time and (sometimes) money.”
The build-up: This part of the presentation helps the audience understand the problem and evaluate potential solutions, resulting in a few key insights. For example, you could explain what will happen to their woods without any management and describe the benefits of some commonly recommended management practices. The key insight for audience members might be that an investment in management practices yields huge dividends in terms of increased financial and amenity values. Emotionally, this section maintains tension but starts moving the audience to a “solution” mindset.
The resolution: This lays out the path forward. If you’ve set this up right, the recommended actions flow naturally and obviously from the key insights and tension is eased when audience members resolve to take the suggested action. In this case, the action may be: “Set up an appointment with your local service forester to discuss management practices that will help you make the most from your woods.”
Once you answer these questions, the answer to that other pestering question: “What am I going to say?” should come easier.