A few years ago, my daughter Eleanor decided to participate in our county’s 4-H speech contest. I teach and write about public speaking for a living, and I have plenty of experience in it myself, but when my daughter looked and me and said, “I want to write a speech about Venus Fly Traps, but I don’t know how,” I had to pause. This was my daughter’s very first speech, and I wanted to be careful about how I taught her. Really, I needed a moment to develop some content to teach her about content.
Often, when we initially think about presenting, we think about delivery—how we look or sound or how well we control our nerves. In fact, the Mehrabian myth contributes only 7% of communication to words. But that study is often misunderstood and misquoted. Delivery skills are important, but every great presentation begins with great content. So I’ll share with you the advice I shared with my daughter that day, and it all boils down to purpose and path.
What’s the Essential Purpose?
Long before Stephen Covey told us that highly effective people “begin with the end in mind,” Aristotle introduced the concept of teleology. Teleology encourages speakers to know where they are headed before they begin. So to develop strong content, we need to know what we are striving for. At the core, all speeches are aimed at either information, persuasion, or entertainment. Of course there will be inevitable overlap, but what is the primary and essential purpose of your presentation? Begin by answering that question.
Once you can identify your primary purpose, start to explore the other aims of your presentation. We might initially have thoughts like these: To impress my boss. To get that promotion. To just get through the presentation without being too nervous. All of those are good goals, but they don’t directly relate to the essential purpose of the presentation. Let’s refocus. Say you’ve identified that your presentation is primarily meant to inform. The natural question that follows then, is, who are you trying to inform? The audience. As we begin to develop content, we must begin with the audience in mind. Impressing a boss or getting a promotion might happen, but they are secondary to what you should really focus on, which is informing, persuading, or entertaining your audience. As you begin to develop content, keep circling back around to the essential purpose that you’ve identified.
What’s the Best Path?
Once you’ve identified your essential purpose and weeded out superfluous goals, you’ll need to establish the best path to reach that goal. Every presentation is a journey. If we were on the journey alone, we could jump into developing content without much thought. After all, we know the type of examples that appeal to us, the way we most easily process information, and what moves us. But we have to remember that the journey, the presentation, is not about us. We can only pick our path forward when we know who is on the journey with us.
So again, we must study our audience. Who are they? What do they need? What do they know or not know? Why should they care? Why are they here? What moves them? Once you’ve figured out the answers to these questions, you can start to develop a plan, organizing and grouping information in the format that makes the most sense to your audience. In order to do that, you might have to step outside of yourself for a moment. You’ll have to see the content through fresh eyes.
When my daughter said, “I want to write a speech about Venus Fly Traps, but I don’t know how,” I had to see the subject of public speaking through fresh eyes, my daughter’s eyes. In that moment, I had to let all of my education and experience fall away, and I had to think about what her best path to understanding would be. And then I had to help her do the same when it came to writing a speech about a plant she already knew a lot about. So I told her, “Imagine your best friend wanted to get a Venus Fly Trap. What would she need to know? Start there.”
When a presenter can move from developing content for himself to developing content for his audience, he’ll be more effective and influential. It doesn’t matter if you are writing an elementary school speech for the county 4-H competition or if you are selling a product to a room full of multimillionaires; every speech must begin with the purpose and the path.
To keep learning about how develop presentations with purpose and power, check out our online presentation skills course.