How do you prepare for an upcoming presentation? Let’s say it’s an important one, so you’re not going to wing it, just showing up in the moment and saying whatever comes into your mind.

Not a good idea, really, even for a minor presentation, so good for you for prepping – this time.

A recent study about dealing with stress highlighted two of the worst ways to deal with that pesky phenomenon: worrying about it without solving anything specific, and fantasizing that the whole thing will just go away on its own.

It struck me that I’ve used both methods to deal (unsuccessfully) with an upcoming speech, and many of my clients have done the same. It’s not a surprise to learn that such mental meanderings don’t help, but it does point the way toward useful preparation for a speech v the less useful kind.

So here are five steps for speech preparation, ones that meet the study-approved criteria for not making your stress worse, and that may even help you give a better speech.

1. First, nail down the logistics. Start with the specifics, because once you know the time of day, the number of people in attendance, and what’s on their minds, then you’re in a much better position to craft or revise your speech to meet this specific audience’s needs.

Are you the first keynote of the day, or a late afternoon breakout? You can expect more intellectual effort from the former and less from the latter. Are you speaking to a large audience or a small one? You need to play up the fun and stories for the first group, and the interactivity for the second group. Is the group fresh from a triumph or tragedy? The first crowd will feel freer to respond to new ideas, but also perhaps more arrogant and less interested in what someone else has to say. The second crowd will be looking for help and comfort, but their resilience will be bruised – you’ll have to think about being gentle.

2. Then, create the presentation content. Once you know whom and what you’re dealing with, you can shape your stories and content to meet the audience in question. The tweaks may be minor, or you may have learned that a major overhaul is necessary because of the group situation you’re dealing with.  You’re simply not ready to prep content until you know the logistics and details of your audience.  A speech is never an abstract phenomenon; it’s always particular.  

3. Next, plan your choreography and staging. I include any slides, video, music, props, interactivity, and so on you may be using. Particularly note that I don’t suggest thinking about slides during the content phase. A good presentation is not, repeat not, a collection of slides. One of the worst diseases of modern organizational life is the tendency to create talks by grabbing a slide here and a slide there and a slide from Joe down the hall. The result has no arc, no story line; it’s just a collection of slides. As a result, it defies an audience’s attempts to stay with it. We humans need a story line, one which we grasp in advance, in order to follow you into the thickets of your idea, position, or musings. And giving us an agenda slide is not the answer. That just labels the incompetence for all to see.

4. Now visualize success. This is the step particularly inspired by the stress study. If you don’t visualize success – creating mantras, as I’ve blogged about before, and movies in your head of the thing going well – you’ll worry about how badly it might go, and that all too often can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But it’s not enough just to think about the speech in your head….so….

5. Finally, rehearse the presentation. I’m always amazed when I talk to highly placed executives who have flimsy rationales for not rehearsing (“I don’t want to get stale”). It’s just avoidance, and it leads to bad performances. You need to get the physical feeling of delivering the presentation in your muscle memory. You wouldn’t run a race in the Olympics without having performed trial heats, right?

If you undertake these five steps for each presentation, and in this order, you will deliver a better speech, with less stress. These steps won’t guarantee that nothing can go wrong, but they will certainly help minimize the opportunities for disaster. You’ve been prepped. Now go do it.






  1. Love this: “One of the worst diseases of modern organizational life is the tendency to create talks by grabbing a slide here and a slide there and a slide from Joe down the hall. The result has no arc, no story line; it’s just a collection of slides.” Going to quote you to a client today!

  2. Rehearsal is what recently saved me. I delivered one of the most important speeches of my career to-date and, the night before, I suffered from severe jet lag whereas I literally got not one minute of sleep. Not something I would wish upon any speaker. The next morning, being the keynote I was the first to speak and needed all of my energy and brainwaves, which I was reasonably lacking due to my lack of slumber. However, I delivered my presentation with great success and I attribute this success to the many hours of rehearsal I put in during the weeks leading up to the presentation. My mind and body instinctively knew what to say, when to be passionate, when to be serious, etc.

    The biggest lesson I learned from this experience: never travel without some form of drowsy-inducing medicine!

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