The first three questions

Opening PowerPoint is one of the first things people do when preparing a presentation. However, it’s the wrong place to start. Opening PowerPoint first is like buying paint for the living room before you’ve even started building the house.

Asking three particular questions is a much better place to start. Here’s the first one:

“Who am I talking to?”

It sounds obvious. “I’m talking to my boss,” or “I’m talking to a bunch of students,” or “I’m talking to the King of the World.”

But be careful. If you think this question is obvious, it is highly likely that you are about to bore your audience.

Will you be speaking to one person? 10 people? 100 people? More?

Are all the audience members the same, or are some of them a little more important to you than others? Sure, you’re talking to 10 people, but 3 of them are board members, and they are going to take your message back to the boardroom, and you want them to persuade the other 9 board members to fund your project.

So you’re not talking to 10 people, you are talking to 3.

And you’re not talking to 3 board members. You are talking to Joe, who already thinks your project is a complete waste of money, and you are talking to Karen, who thinks your idea is good, but she worries about your ability to manage the project, and you are talking to Mark, who is preoccupied with thinking about the fight he had with his ex-wife yesterday when he dropped the kids off.

That brings us to one of your first constraints: You can address the concerns of Joe and Karen, but you are never going to get Mark’s attention. Mentally at least, Mark is not in the room. You’re not going to hit 3 out of 3 no matter what you do.

And so the pressure to be perfect is off. Maybe later Mark will ask Karen and Joe what they thought about your presentation, and he will be swayed by them. But for you, right now, he is lost. Don’t worry about him. Focus on Karen and Joe.

You’re not speaking to 10 people anymore, you’re speaking to 2. Of course, don’t stare at those two people and ignore everyone else. Do whatever is normal in the culture in which you are speaking. In most countries and at most companies, that means talking to the other people in the room too. Sure, you’ll probably spend more time talking to, and looking at, and fielding questions from, Joe and Karen, than any other two people in the room. But you won’t be giving everything to those two, and completely ignoring the other eight. That would just be rude.

That brings us to question #2:

“What do I want them to do?”

Again, perhaps at first that sounds like an obvious question. But often, when we ask people to ask themselves that question, they get a surprised look on their face, and they say, “Well duh, I want them to…”, and then they drift off and start mumbling, or they start making an aimless list of the first things that come to mind.

Have you seen that movie Blow, with Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz? It’s one of my favorite movies, and I love so many scenes in that movie, but right now I’m thinking of one scene in particular. Johnny Depp flies to Colombia to meet with some potential business partners (or, more specifically, drug dealers). He visits them at their palatial estate, and three of them (Johnny Depp and two Colombians) meet in the veranda out in the garden to talk business. They’re going to arrange a little test project where Johnny Depp will smuggle a couple suitcases of cocaine into the US.

One of the Colombians, the main businessman, starts asking Johnny Depp very specific questions:

“Tell me, what are you going to put in the suitcase?”

“I don’t know, clothes.”

“What kinds of clothes? Whose clothes? Your clothes?”

Johnny Depp starts getting angry. He’s probably thinking, “Who are you to ask me all these obvious questions? Of course I can carry two suitcases through an airport, anyone can do that!”

The thing is, when you’re giving a presentation, you have to ask yourself even basic questions like this.

Do you want them to call you tomorrow? What do you want them to say when they call you? Do you want them to say, “I have that problem too, can you fix it?”

Or do you want them to tell friends about you? Do you want them to say, “I saw this guy give a speech, and he really opened my mind”?

One of the most common reasons for giving a presentation is because your boss asked you to. There’s nothing wrong with that. If your answer to the question “What do I want them to do” is “I want my boss to be glad she asked me to do this,” that’s perfectly fine.

Maybe you just want one person in the audience to think you’re smart. That’s fine too. If you’re talking to 20 people, but you just want Bob to think to himself afterwards, “That guy’s smart,” there’s nothing wrong with that.

There are a couple reasons to ask yourself this seemingly obvious question:

First, the content of what you say, your message, is going to be directed at making this thing happen. You aren’t talking in front of those people just to kill some time. You will feel a lot more confident, and your presentation will be a lot more coherent, if you know why you’re doing it.

Second, after the presentation, you will probably be swimming in a sea of emotions. You might feel a little embarrassed, because you get nervous standing in front of people. You might feel a little relieved, because it’s over.

When all of this is happening, your answer to this question serves as your “One Thing.” If you wanted them to call you, and they do, you met your goal. If you wanted them to give you their email address, and they did, you met your goal. If you wanted Bob to think you’re smart, and he does, you met your goal.

It doesn’t matter how you feel, and it doesn’t matter what else happens. If your “One Thing” happened, you got what you wanted.

That brings us to the third question:

Why should they care?

“Because I want them to,” or “because they should” are not good answers. They may be true, but they’re not good answers.

Why is this question so important? This question is important because it will tell you how to hook your audience. It will tell you what button to push, what lever to pull, so your audience members take the action you want them to take.

Here are some examples:

  • If you are presenting your department’s annual plan to the regional GM visiting from headquarters, he might care because he has a boss too, and he’ll look good in front of his boss if his people (you) are organized and know what they’re doing. He’ll care because if you do well, he’ll do well.
  • If you are describing the competitive landscape to potential investors from Spain, they might care because if your company is successful, they will make more money, and they’ll be able to send their kids to better universities.
  • If you are telling German industrial lubricant manufacturers that local lubricant manufacturers in Egypt are using low-quality raw materials, they might care because they are losing market share, and therefore money.

Let’s review:

Before you start your preparations, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Who am I talking to?
  2. What do I want them to do?
  3. Why should they care?

Have you heard of that quote from Albert Einstein? “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” Channel the spirit of Albert Einstein. Spend 55 minutes thinking about these three questions. Everything will come easy after that.

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