The preparation of any presentation should begin as soon as you are asked to make it.

When approached to give a talk, find out as much as you can about the sponsoring organization, the event itself, and the venue. Quite often the first approach to a potential speaker is through a third party; for example it might be someone who knows you personally, but really has nothing to do with the event. If the person who first contacts you isn’t in charge of the program, find out who is running the show and get in touch as soon as possible in order to obtain the information you need to properly prepare.

            Your first order of business is to be sure that you know enough about the suggested topic in order to be able to give an appropriate, informative and effective talk. To make this assessment you have to be absolutely clear on the organization’s expectations. Don’t leave any gray areas. Find out specifically what their expectations are, and be sure you have the necessary knowledge and experience to meet them. Sometimes you’ll be able to suggest a slightly different approach  that will result in a more comfortable talk for you to give and more useful information for the audience to receive. Suppose that you’re an architect and you’ve been asked to make a presentation to a group of design-and-build contractors on the subject, “Why You Should Engage an Architect.” This topic would require you to sound pretty self-serving and could antagonize some members of the audience. But if the topic is changed to “How an Architect Can Help You Please Your Client,” both problems would be solved.

            Get all the details about the venue where the event is being held. You need to find out exactly where you’re going to be giving the talk, which includes not just the location’s address, but which room you’re going to be in. You need to find out how big the room is and how it’s going to be set up. Find out if there will be a lectern, and get details about the sound system and available audio and visual equipment. Ask where you should park and whom you should look for when you arrive. Getting this information will ensure that you arrive in plenty of time and will reduce unpleasant surprises when you get there. I deliberately used the word “reduce” in the previous sentence because there often will be a surprise or two when you arrive to deliver your talk. If there is something wrong, don’t let it throw you; deal with it and get on with the task at hand, which is to give your talk in as effective a manner as possible.

            You should be clear as to the format. You need to know

  1. Whether you are the only speaker
  2. If there are going to be other speakers, you should find out their names, what their topics are, and how to get in touch with them
  3. If it’s a panel discussion, how to get in touch with the moderator
  4. Where you fit in the order of speakers
  5. The time of day you are scheduled to speak
  6. How much time you have been allotted
  7. Whether there is going to be a question and answer period and what its format will be
  8. Whether there will be media coverage and the format thereof

            Find out exactly what happens immediately before you speak and immediately after you finish. This information may affect your opening and closing remarks. For example, if you’re speaking right after someone who is going to be delivering a talk on a subject related to yours, you should be sure you’re present to hear that speech. This will allow you to ensure your opening provides an appropriate and smooth transition into your topic. If you’re speaking, say, just before a well-known expert on a particular topic, you might want to mention in your closing comments about how much you’re looking forward to hearing the next address.

            If you are going to be a member of a panel it is a good idea to get in touch with the moderator and the other speakers to ensure there isn’t undue duplication in your presentations. It’s worth reminding you here that even if there are three of you dealing with exactly the same topic (which is rare because each speaker on a panel is usually assigned a specific aspect of a broad topic to deal with), you shouldn’t worry. The audience wants to hear your opinions, conclusions, and recommendations resulting from your knowledge and experiences.

            But by far your most important task when asked to give a talk is to learn as much as possible about your audience. Different people have different expectations. They think and react differently. They respond to different “hot buttons”. Sometimes different people respond to the same things in different ways. What worked wonderfully well in one speaking situation may not do so well in the next. A talk on the taxation of capital gains given to a gathering of lawyers can appropriately focus on technical aspects of the law; but if your audience is made up of real estate agents you need to make your points in easily understood layperson’s terms. The real estate agents are not likely to be interested in the technical wording or the numbers of the sections, sub-sections, paragraphs and sub-paragraphs of the legislation. They’ll want to know what transactions are taxed, at what rates, and whether there are ways to eliminate or reduce the tax burden.

            So, how do you gain all this knowledge about your audience? Well, you ask questions and engage in research. You can talk to the organizers and to any members of the organization whom you may know personally. You can check the Internet. You can sometimes get the names of a couple of people who have previously spoken to the organization and chat with them to get a feel for their experiences. You need to find out what the people you’re going to be addressing are talking about these days. What are some of the local issues? All audiences have beliefs, biases, particular interests and views. Find out as much as you can about them.

            Audiences also have particular cultures. Service clubs usually want a fairly short, easy-to-understand luncheon address. Economic think tanks, on the other hand, expect their luncheon speakers to deliver a substantive message with wide and deep implications. “The Ten Most Common Personal Financial Planning Mistakes” might be a perfect topic for a Rotary Club luncheon, but an Economic Club audience would likely be much more interested in the economic growth outlook for the next year. Find out as much as you can about the audience’s culture.

            The size of your audience is important. You need a different approach when speaking to a thousand people than when you’re going to be addressing an audience of fifty. Five or ten is different still. The larger your audience the more structured your speech and the more formal your presentation should be. The smaller the group the less formal and structured you have to be. For example, it would be fine to get into a dialogue with members of an audience of ten; it would be disastrous to do so with an audience of hundreds. For large audiences you will definitely need a lectern and a microphone. For a very small group you could probably get away with sitting on a table holding your notes in your hand.

            You should try to get as much information about the audience as you can before you start to write your speech. If you can’t get everything you need right away, keep asking, right up until you are about to start speaking if necessary. You can usually find out some interesting things about your audience when you arrive at the venue; always arrive early, make yourself available to talk to people, and keep your eyes and ears open for any tidbit that you can use in your talk.

            You should always send the organizers the information you want used in your introduction. Don’t send your life history; they might choose the wrong parts of it  Just tell them what’s needed to show that you are knowledgeable about your subject, plus anything else that might be relevant to the particular audience. I’m a professional accountant. That fact, and my financial experience, would be important to include in my introduction if I was going to give that talk to the Rotary Club mentioned earlier about the ten most common personal financial planning mistakes. But my financial background wouldn’t be relevant if I was speaking on how to give an impromptu speech. In this case it would be my public speaking training, background and experience that should be highlighted in my introduction. As to information relevant to a particular audience, the fact that I have an Honorary Degree from the University of Prince Edward Island would be totally irrelevant to a New York audience, but should be included if I was giving a talk somewhere in Atlantic Canada.