Originally published with the Forbes Coaches Council at Forbes.com August 8, 2017
What’s the first step in crafting a persuasive presentation? For many people, the agony of the blank page sends them straight to the slide deck. Maybe you have a template to work with, maybe you can pull up some visually interesting data, maybe you dig deep into Clipart. Whatever it is, the act of putting something — anything — on the page can be reassuring.
But unless you first take a few minutes to think about what you want to accomplish in this presentation and devise a plan to achieve that goal, your slide deck will likely distract more than it supports. The first step to any successful communication is to craft a strong message. Once you’ve done that, everything else, from your slide deck to your delivery, will follow.
The GAP Method to Create your Message
My company has devised a strategy — what we call the GAP method — to help gather the information needed to create a powerful, effective message. That blank page won’t seem so intimidating when you have a strategy to fill it with meaningful information. In this method, GAP stands for: know your goals, understand your audience, and map your plan.
1. Know your goals: What do you want to accomplish? With your outcome in sight, you can more efficiently find the information that will take your audience where you want them to go. This goal should be as specific as possible: What exactly do you want your audience to do once they leave your meeting? For every piece of information you gather, ask yourself: Does this get me closer to my goal today? If the answer is no, discard it. If yes, where does it lead you?
2. Understand your audience: With some knowledge about your audience — who they are, what priorities they bring to your meeting, and what pressures they may be feeling — you can personalize your message. The more meaningful your message is to your specific audience, the more persuasive it will be. By assessing their needs and priorities, you can predict what information will be valuable to them, how much detail they’ll want to hear, and what questions or objections they might have.
3. Map your plan: Use a simple outline to clarify your key points and make your message concise. When you consider what information is most important for your audience to remember, you are better able to emphasize those points, use your slide deck to visually strengthen your argument, and deploy tone and body language to reinforce your message.
Your message outline should consist of three parts, or acts:
Act No. 1: Pull your audience in with a strong open. This is your first chance to engage with your audience and convince them that you are worth paying attention to. Give your audience a sense of what’s to come, why they should care about what you are about to say, and what you are going to ask them to do.
Act No. 2: Make your case. Support your argument with the specific information — data, anecdotes, detailed studies — that can persuade your audience that you have the right plan. Giving this act a structure — a logical sequence of chapters, with an internal summary along the way to remind your audience what’s at stake — will make it easier for an audience to follow your argument and to remember the key information.
Act No. 3: Quickly and emphatically make your closing statement. In other words: repeat, repeat, repeat. Most audience members will have drifted off at some point in your presentation. This is your chance to reiterate your most important points in a succinct, memorable way. Make sure everyone in the room walks out knowing exactly what you are recommending and/or what you want them to do. If Act One and Act Three sound a lot alike, great. It may feel overly repetitive, but repetition is memorable.
This isn’t a process that needs to take much time, and the more you put it into practice, the quicker it gets. But by engaging in a thoughtful, deliberate process before any communication — a presentation, an important email, a phone call with a client — your ability to connect meaningfully and persuasively with an audience will be dramatically improved.