7 steps to planning better presentations

In nearing the end of the spring conference season, and in the run-up to BlogWorld New York, I’ve started reflecting on how my approach to presentations has evolved.

Preparing a presentation for a conference is no mean feat. (I spend at least 30 hours on each presentation I create for conferences.) With that level of time investment, especially if you’re creating multiple presentations each year, you need to make sure you invest your time well.

This year, I’ve started approaching presentations in a new way. I’ve thrown out the PowerPoint-driven way of planning my presentations, turning toward a more story-driven way of building them. My goal: creating presentations that are more direct and more relevant to the people I’m speaking to.

Here, in seven steps, is how I’m preparing my BlogWorld NYE presentation. You can use these seven steps yourself, to improve your own presentations.

1. Decide on your topic.

Simple enough, sometimes. Other times, it may take a little more thinking.

  1. Who is the audience? Who is attending the conference, and whom from that group do you want to attend your session? For BlogWorld, I actually broke it down to a few sample job titles of people I want to “speak to.”
  2. What do they want? Once you’ve figured out whom you aim to speak to, think about them more and figure out what they may want to get out of the event. Whether you’ve already figured out your topic or not, that will help you focus the meat of your presentation on them. Write it down, and refer to it every time you work on the presentation.

2. Create your framework

The next step is to create the high-level framework for the presentation. (I’ve taken inspiration from Cliff Atkinson’s book “Beyond Bullet Points”  here.)

Break down your session: What do you want to cover in the time you have? How long do you have to present? How long is the Q&A? Plot it out in a two-column table, with your main topic in a single cell on the left (as a reminder to ladder back to it) and multiple rows within this in the second column—you’ll build on this in later steps:

3. Flesh it out

At this point you already have a bare-bones outline of your presentation. The next step is to flesh it out. I do this with the additional detail to the subtopic column, and two new columns in the table.

First, figure out how you want to prioritize your topics. You know how long you have and what you want to cover, so break it down. You can change it later, but it helps as you build your presentation.

Second, break each subtopic down into components. This represents the narrative that your presentation will ultimately follow. As you do so, additional thoughts will come to you about sound bites, stats, reference points, and visuals. Note them in the final column here for future reference.

See what we’re doing here? We’re building a hierarchy. By the time you’re done, the subtopics should read as the key points within your presentation subject, and the subtopics tell a more detailed story of those key points. Each row ladders back to the overarching topic, and each column tells the story of the presentation at a different level of detail.

By this point you should be finding that you’re forcing yourself to take a hard look at your presentation flow, identifying pieces that need to move around, either vertically or horizontally, within your structure. You should also be getting excited as the presentation takes shape.

4. Write it out

At this point, you’re at the stage of writing out your presentation. Yes, that’s right—write it out.

The level you take this to is up to you. You could just make more detailed notes on the breakdown of your detailed presentation elements, or you could write it out in full. The latter is more time consuming, but can also give you a better idea of where you stand timewise. Thoughe I rarely refer to my speaking notes onstage, I do prefer to write things out in full the first time so I can walk through it out loud and see how it sounds.

If you choose to write it out in full, a good guide to length is shooting for roughly 110 words for each minute you’ve allocated to a topic. Your speaking rate may vary, so adjust according to your own style.

5. Start the deck

We’ve completed four steps (out of seven), and you haven’t even opened PowerPoint or Keynote yet! Well, now you can. The difference is this: Rather than creating a presentation based on slides, you’re now creating it based on a narrative. Go through your notes, and drop them into the speaking notes section of slides. Don’t worry about the front end; just the notes.

You can create slides based on the topical breakdown you’ve created—the more straightforward approach—or you can do it based on natural transitions within the speaking notes you’ve created. It’s your choice.

The key here is that you’re building your deck based on the topic and not on shoehorning specific visuals into slides, which often happens if you let slides drive the topic.

6. Visuals!

Now that you’ve built your deck, the next step is the visuals. Happily for the audience, with the way you’ve planned this out, your visuals now support the material rather than the reverse, and you should be able to avoid “death by awful PowerPoint slides.” Refer to your topic notes, refer to the visuals you jotted down throughout your process, and pick visuals that reinforce what you know you’ll be saying rather than the reverse.

7. Refine and rehearse

You’re almost there. The last step is editing—my least-favorite but possibly the most-valuable step. Don’t close things down and wait for the presentation; go over your deck and make sure it works. Sanity-check it with a colleague (or, if they’re really tolerant, your partner).

Finally, rehearse the hell out of your presentation. No one wants to suffer as a presenter who umms and aahs his or her way through their presentation, and you’re not going to have slides full of 12-point font behind you as a crutch if you forget, so make sure you know your presentation inside and out.

You should know your presentation well enough that you can accommodate interruptions without getting flustered (because, as anyone who presents a lot will tell you, it happens all the time. Sigh…).


There you have it. I’ve used this approach for a couple of presentations, and I now come at them with a much more thoughtful approach than I used to. It takes a bit more of a time investment, and it means you need to know your stuff, but I think it’s worth it.

What do you think? If you give a lot of presentations, how do you go about planning them?

Dave Fleet is the vice president of digital in Edelman’s Toronto office. A version of this post first appeared on his blog.


(Image via)