How to save time preparing a presentation

Many of the people who come on our courses say that it takes them ages to prepare a presentation. Then we teach them our presentation planning system and they say:

“It enabled me to put together an effective presentation ready to present to senior management in half-a-day. Normally this would have taken me two weeks.” Simon Lloyd-Evans, Infrastructure Manager, IAG

“It has enabled me to focus the content in such an efficient manner that I will save hours on preparation.” Niels Meinderts, Solicitor

Now I’ve taken the presentation planning system that we teach on our courses and written “The Quick and Easy Guide to Creating an Effective Presentation”. You can get a free copy of the Guide by signing up for my email newsletter (click on the link to do that). Meanwhile here are nine time-saving tips for everyday presentations.

1. Start preparing your presentation early

Spend an hour planning the outline of your presentation as soon as you know you have a presentation to give. Then you’ll find yourself thinking about it at odd moments in the day. You’ll come up with improvements to the flow, or a story may come to mind. Jot these ideas down. The next time you devote some time to your preparation a lot of the work will be done.

If you leave preparation to the day before, you might be working flat-out for 6 hours. So take advantage of the organic processes of your mind. Start planning early.

2. Don’t do audience analysis

For most everyday presentations you don’t need to answer a long list of questions about the audience. But that doesn’t mean that your presentation shouldn’t be targeted to your audience. At every stage of your planning process, have your audience in mind. An effective way of doing this is to plan your presentation around the questions you think your audience will have on your topic. For more on this see the post Answer your audience’s questions.

3. Don’t spend time working out your objective

This is an extra step in the planning process that for most everyday presentations you don’t need. Here’s what to do instead – focus your presentation around a key message.

If you want to inform your audience, then your key message is the most important thing you want them to remember from your presentation.

If you want to persuade your audience, then your key message is the action you want them to take as a result of your presentation.

By focusing on your key message, you’ve incorporated thinking through your objective. Two steps in one.

4. Don’t brainstorm

Brainstorming involves thinking of everything that you could include in your presentation. But there’s only so much information you can include in any presentation. If you brainstorm you’re just increasing the amount of time you’ll have to spend editing your presentation. See also 4 reasons why brainstorming will sabotage your presentation.

Note: I think brainstorming and mind-mapping are distinct. Mind-mapping can be useful – see the discussion in the comments of the brainstorming post.

5. Don’t do any research until you know what you might be missing

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you need to know all there is to know on your topic. But this will have you wasting hours of time. You don’t need to know everything.

Plan the outline of your presentation before you do any research. Then work out where the gaps are. You may realise that a case study would be effective to demonstrate one of your points, or that a specific statistic would add credibility. Then find that item.

6. Use PowerPoint with discretion

Yes, I know it doesn’t take long to put together a deck of bullet-point slides. But they’re awful for the audience so don’t show them (see The problem with traditional bullet-point slides for more information). Print them out and use them as your notes (see more in this post The lost art of notes). Then if you’re short on time either don’t use PowerPoint at all – or prepare a slide for each of your main points. State your main point on the slide and nothing more. Use a san serif white font on a black background and your slides will look simple and elegant.

7. Rehearse and time your presentation early on in the planning process

People often leave rehearsal till the very last moment or don’t rehearse at all. You can save a lot of time by doing a rehearsal and timing yourself early on in your planning process. You may realise two things:

  • That you’ve already got plenty of material for the time available – and you don’t need to plan any more material, and
  • That your presentation is pretty good already – and any further work will just be small incremental improvements.

See also this post on the benefits of rehearsal.

8.  Accept that there’s no such thing as a perfect presentation

Many of us get caught up in trying to create the perfect presentation. There’s no such thing. Presentations are a live event and so are subject to all the stumbles, blunders and mistakes that make a live event exciting (for the spectators!) A presentation is also a snapshot in time. Sometimes you look great in a photo, and sometimes you’ve got your eyes half-closed. So it with presentations. So let go of the need to be perfect – you’ll save time. For more help on this see There’s no such thing as the perfect presentation.

9. 80/20 principle

You’ve probably heard of the 80/20 principle. Applied to preparing for a presentation, it predicts that doing 20% of the work will get you 80% of the results. To improve your presentation to 100% (perfection) will take 80% of the work. The moral of this is be satisfied with an 80% presentation – hey, that’s already pretty good.

These time-saving tips are not intended for a conference presentation or a high-stakes pitch when you’ll pull out all the stops. But you may still find some of them useful. What time-saving tips do you have for preparing presentations?

And don’t forget to get your copy of “The Quick and Easy Guide to Creating an Effective Presentation”.

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4 Comments

  1. Olivia: great post. #7 is the key for me – practice, practice, practice. After spending hours making the slides just perfect it’s all too easy to assume that the slides will talk for themselves, but they never seem to do that.

    It’s amazing at how much a presentation changes after just a few practice runs. I’ve found that 7 seems to be the right number for the number of times that a presentation needs to be practiced in order to get it “just right”.

    – Dr. Jim Anderson
    The Accidental Communicator Blog
    “Learn How To Calm Your Fears, Wow Your Audience, And Get Your Point Across”

  2. Olivia,

    I have often seen (and made) the mistake of trying to do too many things with one presentation. I think the title for #3 is misleading. You should spend enough time refining your objective to get it down to one sentence. If you can’t sum up in 20 words or less what you want your audience to think, do, or feel differently when you are done, then you are setting the stage for mediocrity.

    I like your other suggestions, and I’ll experiment with them in the near future.

    Thanks!
    Todd

    • Hi Todd,

      I think of an objective as something that you use in the planning stages of your presentation, but don’t actually say out loud during your presentation. On the other hand the key message is what you say (and repeat) in your presentation.

      My experience (for most presentations) is that you can dispense with working out your objective by going straight to deciding on your key message. To get the key message I ask myself “If there was only one thing my audience remembered from my presentation, what would I want it to be?” or “If my audience did one thing after my presentation, what would I want it to be?”. I agree that this should be able to be expressed in one succinct sentence.

      Are we thinking along the same lines?

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