(As originally published in PRSA’s Tactics)
Tonight, as the President delivers his final State of the Union speech, the craft of writing for presentation will be in the national spotlight. Of course, the SOTU isn’t the pinnacle of speechcraft by any means; it’s often just a grocery list of policy talking points and vague ideas. But, it does raise issues about what translates from the page to the stage. Having been both a speechwriter and a speaker, I’ve developed a special appreciation for both.
If you’ve got a conference, workshop, or webinar coming up, consider these 10 for-the-stage writing tips to make sure your next presentation is always your best one.
Everyone has a unique mix of strengths, weaknesses, experiences, and outlook. One of the hottest terms in marketing right now is “personas”, a set of characteristics that define a customer. Now flip that around, and think about your persona as a presenter. I wrote about this a few weeks ago. It doesn’t necessarily determine what you talk about, but how you talk about your expertise.
If you do slides, do them last
Your slides are not your presentation, YOU are your presentation. Your slides should be the last thing you work on, once you have your notes and content put together. Like a stand-up comedian, a good presenter can command a room without any slides at all. Slides should be in a support role: visually helpful but not visually overwhelming.
Write a 3-act drama
The structure of a movie or play can help you think about your organizing your thoughts. Act One: establish why your presentation matters (the stakes), who’s involved (the characters), and your viewpoint (as the director). Act 2: develop the plot (your thesis and main points). Act 3: tie things together to show progress or the potential for action (the resolution). Each act needs to be strong. It can’t be all backstory, unless you want to be shrugged off like a Star Wars prequel or True Detective, Season 2 (boo!).
Don’t lose the bullets
They aren’t just for brief outlines. Here’s how I write speeches and presentations. Why? To prevent overwriting. Visually, this format helps you stay concise: one sentence, one thought. It’s also easier to rearrange your thoughts as you decide to how to group information.
One of the most popular writing and speaking tips is the “rule of three.” A, B, and C. This, that, and the other. It’s a good technique with great rhythm, but you shouldn’t overuse it. Some other great techniquesto illustrate a given point: comparing and contrasting, what happens if you do or if you don’t, repetition on a theme (“we can do A, we can do B, we can do C”), metaphors and similes, and open-ended questions.
Storytelling isn’t enough
In public speaking, as well as public relations, marketing, advertising, branding, it’s been drilled into our heads that stories are important. They are great tools to use, but simply telling a story isn’t enough. That story has to serve the goal of the presentation or campaign. The end of every story should transition to a “that’s why” moment with a lesson or observation.
Make stories and anecdotes portable
Every story or example should be put through an editing process called “10 30 60 90”, meaning length of time in seconds. The same story can be told in numerous ways and the time you have is one of the most important factors. A 10-second version makes a simple point, while a 90-second version is more about taking the audience on a journey of understanding or discovery. More on this in Public Speaking for Real People.
Explain data with analogies
On webinars, in workshops, and at conference, we consume massive amounts of data and research from presenters. But, the numbers lack context or are just too abstract. Find relatable ways to convey big numbers and important data. You see this done in congressional testimony: “the economic impact would be equal to the GDP of your home state, Senator.”
Cut out 25 percent
Once you’ve finished a draft of your presentation or remarks, the first thing you should do is pull out the scissors. You may have facts that you really enjoy using, but they may not fit within the framework of your content or the goals of your session. You can trim them, but keep them on stand-by for Q&A or even discussion after your presentation is over. Better to go short than go long.
When preparing your remarks, try to imagine writing at least one tweet for each of your main points. By doing so, if you can have a few great turns of phrase, you increase the chances that someone is going to love what you just said. Every idea can be conveyed in 140 characters.