Chances are you can relate to this hopeful scenario. Chances are you have also watched your best intentions evaporate under pressure, to find yourself tweaking PowerPoint slides in the desperate hours or minutes before your presentation, scrambling to make time for a quick rehearsal and hoping against hope that you'll be able to pull off a miracle.
Indeed, if good intentions paid dividends, plenty of presenters would have tidy sums to add to their retirement nest eggs. Procrastination being the force of nature it is, however, no matter how much lead time presenters give themselves and no matter how many resources are at their disposal, more often than not, the presentation-development process devolves from noble ambitions to utter chaos.
People who give presentations for a living are no different from other professionals; they are all slaves to the same clock. The difference is that most presentation professionals have learned how to use their preparation time more effectively and efficiently than others have. They also know what time-sucking obstacles to expect and have learned, often through bitter experience, how to get around them.
So, how do the presentation pros — veteran speakers who get paid for their services and consultants and coaches who counsel inexperienced presenters — allocate their time in preparing for presentations? What time-management tips or shortcuts do they employ before stepping to the platform, whether it be for a keynote to an industry conference, a sales presentation, a training or marketing session delivered by Web conferencing or a less formal progress report delivered internally? In short, what do they know that can help the rest of us cure ourselves of our nail-biting, down-to-the-wire habits?
How long should preparation take?
The question of exactly how much time you should allocate for the major phases of presentation development — building the message, preparing the media and rehearsing delivery — has no single, all-inclusive answer. As Mark Twain said, "It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech." The time trap awaiting those who don't recognize the profundity of this statement is a formidable one. Underestimating how much time it takes to prepare a solid, polished performance is one of the most common mistakes made by unseasoned presenters.
Although few hard-and-fast rules exist (and the variables are many, depending on the presentation scenario), professional consultants who help others plan presentations say some reliable rules of thumb can help you develop a timeline.
One long-circulated guideline is that you should devote at least one hour of development time for every minute of presentation time. Author Daria Price Bowman delved into the world of religion to examine development-to-delivery ratios in her book Presentations: Proven Techniques for Creating Presentations that Get Results (Adams Media Corp., 1998). She found an Episcopalian priest who spends about 10 hours each week to prepare his 12- to 15-minute Sunday sermon and a Presbyterian seminarian who spends at least 20 hours of prep time for a 20-minute sermon.
Although it's commendable, an hour-per-minute ratio is rarely realistic for the busy corporate presenter, and plenty of veteran presenters with fine-tuned development systems say they don't need this much time. "If I'm building a new presentation from scratch, you're probably talking about at least 10 hours of research and development for one hour of delivery time," says Bob Pike of Minneapolis, a top presenter in the corporate training field and member of the Council of Peers Award for Excellence (CPAE) Speaker Hall of Fame.
Although development ratios vary significantly depending on the situation, Tom Mucciolo, president of MediaNet Inc., a presentation-skills consulting company in New York City, tells his clients they're usually well-served by devoting about 30 minutes of development and prep time for every minute of delivery. But how you spend that time makes all the difference, Mucciolo stresses.
Developing the message
An informative presentation whose chief goal is to report or explain typically requires more statistical data-gathering and filtering, more prep time to compile facts. "You'll probably need at least three days of research time for that presentation," says Mucciolo. Persuasive or motivational presentations tend to involve less statistical support, so research time is often shorter, the equivalent of a day or so, he says.
During script creation, you should set aside an extra dose of time — and not feel a bit guilty about it — for building your opening "hook" or statement, Mucciolo says. He recently worked with a CEO to develop an opening story for a 10-minute presentation about his company's best practices that the executive was giving to 800 conference attendees. "It took us a long time to create just that hook, but it's vital to capturing attention and setting the right tone," says Mucciolo, "and once you have that, everything tends to flow."
Creating the media
Mucciolo tells clients who are new to presenting that they should expect to spend about an hour of development time per PowerPoint slide, which includes time for initial design, writing and revising text. Plenty of people start by estimating how many slides they can jam into 20 minutes, Mucciolo says. Instead, rather than launching presentation development by building slides, he suggests first trying to break the script into three major themes or key points. "Once you break the content into triads, you can reduce the amount of prep time immensely because every idea or slide you develop from that point has to fit into one of the three categories," he says. "In a sense you corner yourself, and if you start developing a slide that doesn't fit or support that script, it's probably wasting your time."
Mucciolo has seen a few presenters who initially hoped to fit as many as 60 visuals into a 45-minute presentation trim that to 15 or 20 slides using the triad system. For 15 relatively standard PowerPoint slides, at an hour of design and revision time each, that's 15 hours, "which could easily take you three days to develop," he says. "Some might argue that it takes them far less time, but I find there's usually a drop-off in quality."
Of course, keeping your design simple, static and linear, and reducing multimedia components or other Power-Point accessories, also can slash development time. Mucciolo cites data that indicates the average corporate presenter uses presentation design software roughly 14 times a year, or a little more than once a month. Working with it that infrequently, presenters can forget how to use the myriad features of PowerPoint faster than they would with applications they use every day, such as Microsoft Word, Excel or e-mail software. If multimedia that's more complex than PowerPoint slides figures heavily in a presentation — whether it is video, graphics or Web-based materials — expect to have a separate timetable for developing each of those multimedia elements. The same goes for creating handouts.
There are plenty of ways to make your rehearsal time more efficient as well as effective, Mucciolo says. One way is to focus first on practicing transitions between PowerPoint visuals, rather than concentrating on the visuals themselves. In the theater, to remember their lines, actors use cues or triggers that typically are a fellow actor's preceding lines. "In PowerPoint, there is something to say as one slide is ending and another is about to start — the transition," he says. "If you've created and memorized these phrases, it can help you master your delivery much faster."
Mucciolo says reordering rehearsal priorities can help many a presenter. "You see a lot of people on airplanes running through their PowerPoint presentations, memorizing content but not really rehearsing," he says. "The problem is that people over-rehearse the visible content, that which the audience can see and read for themselves, just as you can, and under-rehearse the invisible content, or the transitions, stories, anecdotes and analogies they'll use. You see them stumbling through their own personal stories, making you wonder whether [the experiences] really happened to them."
Paul Reali, president of CyberSkills Inc., a computer-skills training company in Winston-Salem, N.C., finds it more efficient to continually rehearse as he builds slides for a presentation, delivering the slide aloud in his office as he creates it, which helps him test its flow. "I also continually rehearse my stories, riffs and rants, but usually while I'm driving, running or showering," Reali says. "The closest thing I do to a complete walk-through I actually do while jogging. That's also where I calm my nerves, and sometimes where I discover the thread that holds the whole presentation together."
Because rehearsal needs depend on such variables as a presenter's knowledge of the topic and speaking experience, Steve Mandel hesitates to give clients black-and-white guidelines for setting schedules. "You don't want to under-rehearse or over-rehearse, and you'll know you've found that middle ground when you have just enough tension to carry into the presentation and channel into an energized performance," says Mandel, CEO of Mandel Communications, a Santa Cruz, Calif., presentation consulting and training services company. He does use one barometer to test clients' readiness, however. If they can sit with him in his office and comfortably deliver a presentation with nothing but their slides and a few notes, "speaking extemporaneously in a logically planned sequence, with good transitions," they're usually ready to go, he says.
Beating the clock
If you're working on a particularly brutal development timeline, the pros also have a number of ways to make the best use of short preparation time. For many, of course, a compressed timeline means abandoning their personal lives and gaining a case of insomnia. "Tight preparation time tends to shorten my sleep, but not my development hours," says Paul Reali.
When time is in short supply, Marilynn Mobley, president of The Acorn Consulting Group in Marietta, Ga., recommends a quick-and-dirty approach. First, identify key points at the heart of your message, she says — those that'll survive even if your presentation time is unexpectedly slashed — and when those bullets are sketched out, move rapidly to rehearsal. Rehearsing while the script is still in a formative stage provides a quick sense of where you're spending too much time and what content you can cut or subordinate.
"I think a big mistake people make is waiting to rehearse until only a day or two before a presentation," Mobley says. "The quicker you can develop key points and visuals and then rehearse with them, the faster you realize something doesn't flow or what looks good on paper doesn't work when you're standing on the platform." That includes words or phrases that might sparkle on the computer screen or printed page but prove to be problematic when spoken. Mobley remembers an IBM executive client who was enamored with the expression "in an ironic twist" in a speech draft, only to find in an early rehearsal he couldn't deliver the phrase without verbally stumbling.
In her speech-writing, Mobley finds efficiency in starting at the end of the speech and working backward, forcing her to focus first on the end-game or "what I want the audience to walk away with." From a rough outline, she writes a first draft as quickly as possible, leaving transitions, flow and polishing for later. "It's good to get all your important thoughts on paper first, before you put the editor's hat on," she says. Mobley believes the magic in any writing comes in rewriting — particularly important for PowerPoint text bullets — and the faster you finish a first draft, the more quickly you can move to beneficial revising and tightening stages.
Organizing your anecdotes
Mobley uses other time-saving strategies as well. To be better organized, she built a matrix of all the stories she has used in presentations through the years — some 25 tales — with accompanying teaching points, that can be easily pulled from the reservoir for given scenarios. "If I know I'll be talking to administrative staff, for example, and want to make a point about the importance of being aware of your surroundings, I can go right to the story that makes that point best," she says.
Bob Pike says his credo — to present as much from a prepared life as a prepared script — helps him in these quick-turnaround situations. "If you can speak as much from life experience as from a structured lesson, you not only bring a wealth of information; it makes it easier to adjust or adapt on your feet," he says.
Customizing PowerPoint at the speed of light
When creating quality Power-Point slides on short deadlines, nothing facilitates speed like having a well-cataloged online archive of master templates for salespeople, corporate communicators or other frequent presenters to dip into and customize at their convenience.
Storing templates on a central network allows employees to more quickly find and tailor existing presentations for a variety of clients, rather than waste time trying to locate standard slides or build them from scratch.
Template archives don't eliminate the need for presentation support or production staff to "clean up" substandard layouts or insert last-minute changes from internal clients, but they can eliminate headaches and create new efficiencies.
Plenty of organizations already create these master presentations or hire vendors to help them do it. Presentations columnist Jennifer Rotondo, a presentation designer and consultant with Creative Minds Inc. of Atlanta, offers her clients a service she calls "corporate blueprinting," in which she builds custom-designed PowerPoint templates. The masters are preformatted, including corporate logos, color schemes, font rules, point sizes, bullet usage and chart styles, then approved by the client's branding manager. "Organizations tell us blueprinting can eliminate about one-third of their members' time in putting presentations together," Rotondo claims.
Audience profiling: No place to skimp
In Bob Pike's mind, those who regularly give presentations to external groups can help their cause greatly by dedicating more preparation time to one specific area: audience profiling. Even for one-hour keynote sessions he has delivered many times before, Pike logs about four hours of prep time with "at least" two to three of those hours dedicated to audience research, he says. Depending on the nature of his engagements, he'll ask clients to fill out two- to four-page assessments to pinpoint specific learning needs or hot topics, assess their knowledge levels and identify issues — or even specific words — he should avoid. He has presented to more than a few groups, for instance, who cringe at the use of the word trainer and much prefer educator.
For sales presentations, Pike spends more time — more than on any other preparation task — devising good questions, researching the prospect company and identifying key decision-makers in his audience. "You can demonstrate more expertise in the types of questions you ask than in the information you provide," he says.
Doug Max attributes much of his success capturing new business to spending large chunks of time "getting inside the heads" of prospects and focusing on presentation objectives, rather than on any competitive advantage he might gain through the aesthetic quality of PowerPoint slides or other media. As managing director of LR Communication Systems Inc. in Berkeley Heights, N.J., Max offers seminars in business writing and presentation skills.
For "high-impact" workshops or training sessions he delivers — for which he significantly customizes standard content to the audience — CyberSkills' Reali agrees with the importance of such research. For such presentations, he'll spend about one hour researching audience needs for every hour of presentation time, "maxing out at about four hours," he says.
"Audience profiling may take anywhere from 5 percent to 95 percent of the time you apportion for presentation development, but it's the most important time," Doug Max says. "Too much time is wasted on the superficial aspects of presentations, on the garnishes and not the meat."
Dave Zielinski is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Presentations.