When you begin to prepare a presentation, start thinking about the audience. Ask yourself what need it is that they are hoping to fulfill by coming to hear you; and then logically appeal to that need.

To do this you need to ask yourself the following questions.

1. Why have I been asked to give this talk?

            2. What do they expect from me?

            3. What can they learn from my experience and knowledge?

            4. What do I have in common with them?

            5. Do they have problems for which I have solutions?

            6. Is there any particular action they should be taking?

            7. How much do they already know about the topic?

Don’t be too quick to dismiss any idea that comes into your mind while asking these questions. What’s old hat to you may be a revelation to your audience. Anything that comes to mind may be meaningful.

It’ll be nice if people remember your name and face, but it’s your message you want to leave with them; and to achieve that you have to prepare your message from your audience’s point of view.

No matter how strongly you may feel about a subject you have to make it mean something to the people sitting there listening to you. Your audience will have formed some sort of expectation about what they’re going to hear. You need to find out before you prepare your talk what that expectation is, because they might be in the mood for one type of message but not for another. For example, when introducing a new purchasing procedure to your staff it is best to emphasize how their jobs are going to be made easier rather than spending a lot of time talking about the training they’re going to have to take and the overtime they’re going to have to put in to become familiar with it.

The more antagonistic the audience (and they might be antagonistic for the simple reason that attendance is mandatory), the more important it is for you to find as much common ground as possible. Develop some points on which the audience can agree with you and find objectives that you have in common with the audience. For example, suppose you’re faced with having to inform your fellow club members of a proposed increase in annual dues. It would be a good idea to emphasize the pride you all have in the club, everyone’s enjoyment of using facilities that are attractive and up to date, and the desirability of maintaining the club’s reputation. You should introduce such common ground in the opening of your talk.

Remember, it’s all about the audience. If it’s a talk to inform, the audience has to leave knowing more about the topic than they did when they arrived. If it’s a talk to persuade, they have to be convinced that you are right. If it’s a motivational talk, they have to be inspired to act. If it’s a talk to entertain, they have to be entertained.

Consider whether you will have to spend time clearing up misconceptions. If the shareholders at a corporation’s annual meeting think that their company’s performance is not up to industry standards when in fact it is, the CEO better get that out of the way immediately.

You can’t effectively talk about more than one thing at a time, so it’s usually best to stick to one strong message and leave it at that no matter how strong the temptation may be to throw in a couple of ancillary thoughts. However, you can talk about a number of different points as long as each one is linked directly to the one strong message. If you can’t express the theme of your presentation on the back of a business card, it’s probably too complex and needs reworking.

Another point to keep in mind is that, although the topic, and your main points, may stay the same for different audiences, one approach may not suit all audiences. Your script and delivery should vary depending on the formality and the mood of the event. If you’re promoting changes to make the Income Tax Act easier to understand, you would use different examples when addressing an audience of corporate Chief Financial Officers than you would when speaking to a meeting of the Association of Retired Persons. Winston Churchill, who often peppered his speeches in the House of Commons with humour, maintained a perfectly serious tone when delivering his famous “Iron Curtain” speech.

Finally, before you begin to write out your speech, there are two things you need to decide before all others: how you’re going to start, and how you’re going to finish. You might be able to survive a soft middle, but you absolutely need a strong opening and a strong close. If your opening is weak you will lose your audience right away. If your closing is weak you may undo all the positive results you achieved during the rest of your speech. Extra time spent on deciding your opening and closing remarks will also make writing the middle part of your presentation a lot easier.