Think of Your Presentation Like a Christmas Tree

Posted by Kristin Arnold on June 7, 2012

It’s June and  I’ve been thinking about Christmas lately.  You see, I always think about Christmas -specifically Christmas Trees – when I am preparing for a presentation.

While I know many folks who start with the PowerPoint, I don’t even think about slides or other visuals until the end – once I have put together my Christmas tree!

Once I know what the topic is, who I am speaking to, and how long I have, I sit down with pen and paper.  There’s something to the physicality of writing down your thoughts that make your ideas come to light.

What do I write down?  Think of the tree trunk as the topic.  From the tree trunk, sprout a few branches which become the key points you will make.  Be careful here!  Figure out what they want to get out of your speech by researching the company, calling a few participants, and talking to your “sponsor” (the person who asked you to give the speech in the first place).  Find out their hopes, fears, and interests.  Take the time to understand the people, their backgrounds, and the collective culture – often called the “personality” of the group – so you can connect your comments with what they care about.

These branches become your subpoints.  You might have an itty bitty little tree for a very short speech, or a massive Rockefeller Center Tree – they all start with the same type of structure: a tree trunk with a few or bunches of branches.  But it doesn’t stop there!  You bring life to the tree with the ornaments you lovingly place on those branches.

What’s an ornament?  It’s anything you use to illuminate and clarify your point.  Engaging, personal stories are always crowd-pleasing favorite.  But don’t stop there!  You can use a definition, quotation, testimonial, examples, illustrations, case studies, comparisons, analogies (like a Christmas Tree!), allusions, facts, and statistics.  Don’t forget to make them relevant and interesting to the audience.

Another type of ornament are those things you do to involve and interact with the audience. Asking one of them (or all of them) to do something, challenging them with a question, creating a demonstration, skit or role play, game, puzzle, or competition.   Especially if you are giving your presentation in the doldrums right after lunch, or they have been sitting for a long period of time, you’ll want to hang some kind of energizing activity on your tree.

Trimming the Christmas Tree is definitely not a once and done activity!  Many of these ornaments will come quickly to mind because you are an expert in the topic and/or you have given some semblance of the speech once or twice before either formally or informally talking to your colleagues.  Others might need some careful introspection, so I’ll carry my notes around with me for a while as the ideas percolate and then simmer.  As the ideas simmer around your core topic, you’ll start refine the structure and flow of the presentation, making it tighter and even more relevant to your audience. You’ll find yourself “speaking” bits and pieces – to yourself while walking or driving or even to your partner and friends as you try out your stories and activities.  I have a dear friend who is also a professional speaker, and he is always trying out new material on me and gauging my reaction to what he said!

At this point, I’m finally ready to sit down with PowerPoint – if I use PowerPoint at all.  A few years ago, I gave a speech and realized there was only ONE slide I absolutely needed to have. It was a 2×2 matrix explaining a specific concept.  Using one slide during the entire speech?  Awkward!  So I got creative and became a “human 2×2 matrix” – while asking the group to write down the elements of the matrix.  Worked beautifully.  But then again, I had to practice how to do this since the audience sees a mirrored reflection of what you would normally do!

Continue to practice your speech, noting where you can condense and combine your thoughts.  Make it supremely relevant for your audience. And while doing so, you’ll be able to prune your tree easily at a moments notice (your time just got cut from 1 hour to 45 minutes – yikes!) and still stay focused and on track.

Build your Christmas Tree based on the topic and what the audience needs to hear rather than letting your slides drive the topic.


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