Chapter 2:
Planning Your Presentation

Defining Your Goal and Message

Developing a Top-Down Presentation Plan

Understanding Your Audience

The Real World: Filling In Missing Pieces


Chapter 1

Chapter 3

Chapter 2:
Planning Your Presentation

The first step in creating a presentation is to develop a presentation plan. A presentation plan is not an outline. It is a blueprint that you use to construct your arguments and facts that will lead your audience to the conclusions you desire. You don't have to spend a lot of time on a plan, just enough to have a clear idea of how to structure your presentation.

Defining Your Goal and Message

Before you begin any work on the presentation, consider what ideas you want the audience to get from it. When the audience members leave the presentation, what do you want them thinking about?

Your Goal

Write one sentence about what it is that you want the audience to do. Do you want them to spend their hard-earned cash on your product or service? Do you want them to approve a new, bigger budget? Or do you want them to simply feel better about or more confident in your organization? That one sentence is your goal.

Your Primary Message

After you have defined a goal, you need to turn that goal around and make it into a simple, declarative statement, or message. Your message should articulate the one main reason why the audience should act in a way that will achieve your goal.

For example, you might want to convey one of these messages:

  • Our product is the best.
  • A bigger budget will make our organization more efficient and profitable.
  • Our company is financially sound.

Everything that goes into your presentation, including the script, text slides, charts, graphs, photographs, and handouts, should convey your message. As you outline and write your speech and design every slide, ask yourself whether the information you're showing helps relay the message.

If you are planning a meeting with several speakers, develop a central, unifying message for the entire presentation. Then the individual speakers should create their own presentation messages to support the overall theme.

For example, the main theme of an education conference might be:

Computer technology awakens a child's imagination.

Based on this central theme, the speakers' messages might include:

Multimedia is a tool for art education.
SuperMario morality: Nintendo can teach ethics.

A central theme not only makes the entire presentation flow smoothly, but it also makes the individual presentations more powerful and persuasive because they are supported by the others.

Developing a Top-Down Presentation Plan

The "top-down" presentation planning method is structured like a pyramid, as illustrated in Figure 2.1. Your goal is at the top, followed by your message. These top blocks are supported by levels of messages beneath them. This provides the structure for your presentation, which can be easily developed into your final outline, script, and slides.

Figure 2.1: The top-down presentation plan

The "Why?" Approach

Once you've defined your primary message, your best tool for creating a successful presentation plan is the word Why. Put yourself in the position of the audience, and every time you produce a message, ask "Why?". Phrase each new answer with another simple, declarative sentence. Through this process, you create a solid structure of fact and argument within your presentation.

For example, suppose your primary message is:

Eat your vegetables.

Some of your answers to "Why?" could be:

Vegetables taste great.
Vegetables contribute to good health.

These answers provide the third level of your plan, the supporting elements that contribute to the primary message.

By continually answering "Why?" you will work your way down to the level of detail you need to prepare your outline and script.

When you reach the bottom of your presentation plan pyramid, you should have a series of messages that can serve as entries for your outline and titles for most of your slides. You may also want to use higher level presentation plan items as section heads or other levels of your outline.

The Shape of the Plan

The presentation plan doesn't have to be symmetrical. A single message can have as many entries under it as you need to make your point.

A presentation plan can't contain everything you need to create a successful presentation. It is only a starting point for creating an outline. For example, a presentation plan has no chronological order. You have to decide the order and pacing of the information to be presented to the audience.

Understanding Your Audience

While creating a presentation plan, it's important to keep in mind who is asking the "Why?" question. The level of detail and complexity you need in your presentation is influenced by the make-up of your intended audience.

Levels of Influence and Familiarity

The amount of control your audience has over the outcome of your goal will affect the way you select the information to be presented. A presentation to the Board of Directors requesting funding for a new construction project will require a different emphasis than a presentation to the press announcing the same project. At the Board of Directors meeting, the company's benefits will be paramount; at the press conference, the community's benefits will be most important.

The familiarity of the audience with the subject matter will also make a big difference in the way you build your presentation plan. A scientist making a presentation to his peers at a conference will need a high degree of detail and very little background material on the subject. When the same scientist speaks to potential investors for a new biotechnical company, he needs to emphasize the general benefits of his findings and their market potential rather than the technical procedures.

Need to Know

How much information to include in a presentation depends a lot on how much the audience needs to know. For example, at a stock investor's meeting, the first speaker's presentation might introduce the company in general terms, with just enough detail to familiarize the audience with the company and its history. On the other hand, the financial presentation may have very little general information, but consist almost entirely of the detailed data necessary to explain the new stock issue and its profit potential.

The Audience Profile

Take the time to work up a short profile of your audience. By knowing who you're talking to, you'll be able to speak to them more clearly and convincingly. Figure 2.2 shows an example of a form you can use to set up an audience profile.

Figure 2.2: Audience profile form

The Real World:
Filling In the Missing Pieces

Wednesday, October 3, 11:00 am: Creating the upper level of the presentation plan for Hypothetical International has been easy. George, Alan, and Victoria have decided that their goal is:

The audience will buy or recommend our new stock issue.

and their primary message for their combined presentations is:

Hypothetical International is an investment in the future.

They have figured out how long the individual presentations should be, and each speaker has developed a main message:

  • George's opening remarks (5 minutes): The time has come to expand.
  • Alan's presentation (15 minutes): We have the resources to grow tremendously.
  • Victoria's presentation (15 minutes): Hypothetical International is a sound investment.
  • George's closing (5 minutes): You are a part of our future.

Let's take a closer look at Alan's presentation plan. He supports his main message with the three things that prove what a strong organization Hypothetical has: its people, its infrastructure, and its history of success. He then goes on to define seven items that support those three elements, and finally lists supporting information to flesh out his presentation.

Alan has covered most of the bases, but he has forgotten a crucial part of his speech that will make the overall presentation flow better. Alan decides to add a short segment about general corporate finances, which will lead in to the financial details in Victoria's presentation.

With the addition of his financial segment, Alan's presentation looks like it will contain about 30 slides. We get that total from counting the entries in the bottom row of the presentation plan, and then allowing for a few extra title slides and entries which may have to be split over more than one slide.


Creating an effective presentation requires careful planning. You can hone your arguments and make a stronger impression on your audience by following these guidelines:

  • Define your goal by stating what you want your audience to do.
  • Define your main message by articulating why the audience should act toward your goal.
  • When creating many presentations for a single meeting, define a theme that ties the different presentations together.
  • Continue to ask "Why?" to create more messages that reinforce the main message.
  • Tailor your message to the intended audience members. Put yourself in their position when creating your reinforcing messages.