Whether you’re a product person prepping for an important in-house presentation, working up the courage to step on stage at a big conference like #mtpcon, or just want to brush up on your public speaking skills, this practical guide will help you to prepare a killer presentation.
I fall through the cracks between an extrovert (I enjoy performing) and an introvert (I’m the quiet one at the party). So there’s really only one way I prepare for a talk: thoroughly! The approach I take is personal to me and it won’t work for everyone, but I hope by sharing it that it helps someone else to take the step onto a stage.
My main aim when giving a talk is to connect with the audience. I want the talk to be fun (in case the material doesn’t resonate) and practical (in case the jokes don’t land). When preparing for a talk I go through four stages:
- Speaker Canvas
- Timeline Mapping
1. Speaker Canvas
The first thing I do is start filling out the canvas below (which I created by combining various resources). Grab three sheets of A3 paper, stick them vertically on a wall, write the headings shown, and then start adding Post-It notes. You can download the canvas and the timeline mapping diagram mentioned later in this post here.
Then you can just start collecting your thoughts, in no particular order. Try to have something in each area but don’t worry if some are blank, it’s just a framework. Keep adding, removing, and moving Post-Its around until you have an outline of your core ideas that you’re happy with. It may take several iterations but doesn’t need to be perfect.
Having a key takeaway is central to making your presentation practical and informative. What’s the single most important message you want your audience to remember? In her book Talk Like TED, Carmine Gallo recommends writing your message at the top of a piece of paper. Personally, I like to make this a bold or contrarian statement, something that will engage the audience. Then find between one and three related messages that support your key takeaway and write them on Post-Its underneath. Add more Post-Its to outline the content of each supporting message.
Chris Anderson (the head of TED) recommends finding the audience’s starting point so you can bring the audience along with you. How can they relate to this issue or challenge? What aspect of the topic is directly relevant to them, which you can begin your story with? Chris also recommends thinking about how you can spark the audience’s curiosity and grab their attention early on. In fact, it’s worth weaving novel and shocking information throughout your talk because your brain is more likely to recall surprising events or facts.
Crafting a Story
In my bid to connect with the audience, I take inspiration from Christina Wodtke’s article The Shape of Story. She says a conflicted character lies at the heart of all good stories, one who has a goal (which can be unfamiliar to your audience but will work best if they can relate to it) and a motivation (which must be shared by the audience). The conflict can be external (such as Google promoting its own products over organic search results, or a demanding, opinionated stakeholder) and/or internal (such as imposter syndrome, or high ego and hubris). The character then is spurred into action by an inciting incident. Christina also talks about making the protagonist suffer (what did they try and fail at? What pressures were they under? What constraints did they have?), and the resolution (what did they learn? How did they solve the problem or overcome their weakness? How are they changed because of it?). I incorporate these last two into the Pathos section of the canvas as stories that flesh out the main and supporting messages. You can use these themes to help shape the overall arc of your talk or individual stories throughout it. The characters can be people you know, or a personal story, which will have a greater impact as you open up and share your vulnerabilities.
Pathos, Logos, and Ethos
The right side of the Speaker Canvas ensures your talk contains (in the right proportions) three important elements of a narrative: pathos, logos, and ethos. Carmine Gallo describes pathos as your emotional connection with the audience. These are your personal stories and stories about other people, events, products, or brands. Pathos should form around 65% of your narrative. Logos is the logical foundation of your message and represents around 25% of your narrative. These are the statistics or data that illustrate your argument. Ethos forms the remaining 10% and describes the aspects of your character, experiences, or education that lend weight to your message.
2. Timeline Mapping
Once your Speaker Canvas is full of Post-It notes and you’re happy they capture all the important pieces of your talk, it’s time to organise them into a narrative. I use a form similar to user story mapping (I am a product manager after all) which I call Timeline Mapping. On another sheet of A3 I create the headings and columns shown in the template below (download it here):
This represents a timeline (from left to right) of the main points in your talk (and each point’s details from top to bottom). I start by moving the most important Post-It notes (the core stepping stones of the narrative) from the Speaker Canvas to the top row of the timeline. Then I move the Post-It notes that will flesh these stepping stones out and add the detail and colour that brings each one alive, underneath each point.
The first and last columns on the timeline (Opening and Sum-Up) don’t have a direct mapping from the Speaker Canvas. For me, the Opening is a light-hearted, throwaway comment or two. Your host will normally introduce you and your background, so there’s no need to repeat that heavy lifting. I want to get the audience engaged and behind me straight away, and a good way to do that is to elicit a smile and a chuckle – something to warm the audience up. I also find it helps to calm my nerves. It’s usually something I come up with on the day, but I like to have something in my back pocket just in case.
The Sum-Up is where I round everything up. Briefly recapping the main supporting messages and the key takeaway. I think it’s important to give closure and show how everything ties up. I also like to leave the audience with a final thought. This is probably personal to my style, but I prefer to end on an emotional note (rather than an objective summary). For example, when talking about imposter syndrome I shared Neil Gaiman’s personal experience with this, and for my Mind the Product talk on experimentation I paraphrased Shakespeare’s evocative ending to Romeo and Juliet as a galvanising call to action for product managers to be bold and fearless.
At this point you have a good picture of what you want to talk about and the order you will take. Some people might now prefer to create their slides based on the timeline map and start practising their talk, but I prefer to write down what I plan to say in full. There are a few risks with this approach, mainly that you come across as stiff when giving your talk, or you sound like you’re reciting from a script, or you get flustered if you can’t remember your exact lines. I’ll cover these in the next section on rehearsing. Another risk is that what you’ve written sounds stilted and unnatural when you read it aloud. That’s because most people use different words and abbreviate more when they speak, and the flow of sentences can be quite different. So when you write, remember that you’re writing to speak in front of an audience. Imagine giving the talk or having a conversation with a friend, and write down what you say in your head.
Giving a talk to an audience has a big advantage over writing an article in that you can stimulate a sense of sight and sound. The subtle use of rhetorical tools like alliteration, onomatopoeia, and repetition can be the difference between a good talk and a great talk. When you share anecdotes or analogies, paint a picture for your audience so they are drawn into the scene. Use humour to engage people and drive your points home. Like your Opening comment, achieving a smile from the audience is more important than a big laugh. Look at how comedians inject sparks of humour during personal stories (often through misdirection or doubling down).
Slides are the other important tool you have to stimulate people’s senses. Some people find it easier to absorb information aurally and others visually. So use pictures and text to support your argument and help tell your story. Your audience can’t read and listen to you at the same time, so keep text concise and to the point. The idea is not to provide additional information on the slides, it’s to provide multiple ways for people to absorb and understand your message. I create placeholders of slides as I write my talk, wherever I feel they would naturally add to the narrative. I just put a brief description of what the slide should communicate (emotionally or factually), then return after I’ve finished writing and create the slides themselves.
The talk will continue to change and evolve as you rehearse it, so once you have a draft you’re happy with, it’s time to start speaking to myself!
I’ve deliberately used the word ‘rehearse’ here. You’re not just practising your talk, you’re aiming to give a performance and entertain as much as to educate. It’s like playing an instrument: when you rehearse, you’re not just running through the notes to make sure you can play them in the right order, they have to have meaning, emotion, and flow. They have to tell a story.
The great snooker player Stephen Hendry said that every time he bent down to take a practice shot, he imagined it was the final ball in the world championships. So when he was faced with a high-pressure shot in a tournament, he was ready for it.
I take the same approach when rehearsing a talk. I stand up and imagine I’m in front of an audience. How many people are there? Where are they sitting? How far away? What’s the lighting like? How do the acoustics sound? How big is the stage? It’s a performance every time. And just like a performance, things will go wrong. You’ll forget your lines, you’ll click to the next slide too early, you’ll miss a line or say it differentlyfrom how you wrote it. The trick is to carry on, even in practice. Don’t resort to looking at your notes immediately if you forget what to say next, trying to remember will form better connections in your memory when you do figure it out. If you realised you’ve missed something out, try and work it back into the talk later. This might happen on stage and it’s better to be comfortable thinking on your feet than stopping the practice and starting again. To reduce my reliance on the full script, I like to create a mind map that summarises the talk and helps me remember it.
Remember, a performance is not just about what you say but how you say it. Vary your tone and cadence, and play with speeding up and slowing down to bring your words alive. Pause to highlight a point or let the audience catch their breath. Use your whole body, especially your arms and hands, to complement and emphasise what you’re saying. Variety is key.
Also, try giving the talk to colleagues to understand what works and what needs improving. The more you rehearse and experiment, the more comfortable you’ll be on the day.
On the day
One final piece of advice: everybody in the audience wants you to succeed, so get out there and have fun! 😎