Speaking experts have written volumes about the craft of public presentations: don’t read from your slides, keep your slides to six lines with no more than six words each, practice, practice, practice, etc.

Indeed, those tips on style are important. Too often, however, this is where people begin working to improve their skills. Great style is no substitute for well-organized substance. Think of it like a plane ride: even if all of the seats are first class and the food is great, if the plane ends up in the wrong city, the flight is a failure.

In our practice as professional speaking coaches, we find that during our presentation skills training programs presenters can quickly hit the mark by following a few simple steps.

1. Know what you want people to do with the information you are giving them.

If you start with this phrase, you will quickly focus your thinking: “By the time my audience leaves I want them to _________________.”

2. Next, ask yourself why people should do what you want them to do.

Is it better for them? Is it more beneficial to your customers? Will they be able to make better decisions based on the information you have shared? Etc. Your reasons should quickly become your “what’s in it for them” points.

3. If you are using PowerPoint or some sort of handout, create the last few pages first.

This one act will help you stay true to your focus and should keep you from running out of time to prepare an ending with impact.

4. Once you have a good idea of what your ending should look like, it’s time to start at the beginning.

  • How will you get people excited about what you are going to talk about?
  • How will you sell what’s in it for them?

“Today I am going to talk about how to get the most out of your training dollar” is okay. “Today I am going to show you how to stretch your training budget and improve your team’s performance results” is a lot better.

Play around with your benefit statement. Usually, the more specific you are the better.

5. When you’ve refined the nuts and bolts of your benefits statement, you are ready to add some style to your opening.

Will you begin your talk with a question? A statistic? A story? A shocking photo?

If we go back to our previous example of stretching the training dollar, there are a multitude of potential openings. Here is one you might use if you were one of a series of speakers during an afternoon session where people were starting to get a little tired. To illustrate to an audience of 100, for example, that only 3% of the annual training budget shows measurable results, you might ask everyone to stand up and tell the group that they each represent $1,000 in training dollars. Then you could ask all but three to sit down and point out that those standing statistically represent the only transfer of learning from the $100,000 budget.

That type of opening is certainly stronger than just launching into the material.

6. Having more than one opening is another way to improve your presentations.

If we go back to the previous example, how successful would the stand-up opening be if the previous presenter had had people up and down for the 30 minutes? More options give you more flexibility.

7. Once you have launched into your material, it is helpful to tell people what you expect from them.

For example, “I would like to keep this session informal. I’m going to talk about three topics; by a show of hands, which of the following three topics is most interesting to you.” Or, “I am going to talk for about an hour about three key elements for improving relations in the Middle East. At the conclusion, I will take questions for 30 minutes. Please write your questions on the blue cards that were on your chair when you came in.”

Audiences will usually do what you want if you tell them what that is. Don’t believe that this is a frivolous step. People have different ideas about what is expected, and they often process information very differently.

8. When you are into the meat of your presentation, be sure that you connect your points together with solid transitions.

It never hurts to follow the old tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them formula. No matter how engaging you are, from time to time people will miss elements of what you are saying. Good transitions help to reinforce connections.

9. If your presentation has a question and answer period, prepare for some of the likely questions.

This is an especially important step if your topic is controversial. If you’ve been using graphics throughout your presentation, it never hurts to a have graphics to support your answers to questions.

10. Finally, if any of the steps are difficult for you, what you might have discovered is that you are not as familiar with your topic as you should be.

No style can make up for solid knowledge. If you can’t determine a benefit, for example, you probably don’t really know what you are doing. If the transitions are difficult, maybe the points don’t really connect. If you can’t figure out how to introduce the topic, again, there may be a problem.

To solve holes in substance you can either do the work to improve your knowledge, shrink the scope of your topic, or partner with someone who knows more. All of those options are better than winging it.

By following those ten suggestions, you should have a solid plan for successfully arriving at your destination. Best of all, once you are comfortable with what you are talking about, why you are talking about it, and how you are talking about it, you will find that making improvements related to personal style and presence is much easier to implement.