The Dog Ate My Speech: Preparing an Important Presentation at the Last Minute

You have an important speech or presentation coming up on Monday. It’s Sunday now and you have prepared nothing. Maybe it’s not your fault because the plan was changed at the last minute, or maybe you had allocated time to prepare but then there was an emergency to deal with. Or maybe it is your fault. But it doesn’t matter.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the situation is not at all hopeless. You can always recover from a zero-preparation situation and sometimes it can even lead to a better outcome, provided that you know how to do it.

Pretending to be ill or saying that the dog ate your speech might get you off the hook, but long term this will work against your credibility. Your best approach is to go ahead but to use a lean approach to crafting a brief but powerful speech.

Here’s one way to solve the problem:

First of all, throw away all of your old notes, slides and other materials. It’s tempting to try to recycle old stuff but you will find that trying to find and adapt existing things to your ideas takes more time than creating a new one. Plus it isn’t going to help you make any impact because you end up using things because you have them, not because they are useful.

Second, start with a blank piece of paper and decide what you would like your core message to be. This might not come into your head instantly, but give it time. One of the most common speaking errors is to spend too much time trying to make fancy slides and not enough trying to decide what you are talking about. Don’t be that person. Brainstorm a few alternative messages that you would like to communicate and then choose the best. And if you get totally stuck ask someone to help.You should have in your phone contacts a few names of people who can get you unstuck in an emergency.

Third, choose three ideas that support this core message and for each write just a few bullet points – no more than three. Use stories as much as possible because they are far easier to remember, both for you and the audience. Don’t have too many points or too many stories. You don’t have much time so you should focus on making a good simple presentation rather than a bad complex one.

Fourth, write an outline in bullet point format on a small card – 10x15cm cards are plenty big enough. This outline should have a simple introduction, the three main points and a conclusion. Don't write an entire script because that takes too long to write and to memorize. Make a copy of the card because it is useful to have one in your pocket just in case you need it on stage. Having a single handwritten card is a recipe for disaster and there is no need. If you don’t have a copier handy just take a picture with your phone.

Fifth, take your note card and practice presenting the content, using the keywords as a guide but simply making up the exact words each time. Repeat this many times and you will end up both with a smooth way of telling your story and also remember the order of the points. If you kept your structure simple this is actually quite easy to do. It’s best to practice standing up and speaking out loud if you can. This helps to reinforce the memory.

You’ll notice that I didn’t mention slides. If time is really short your best bet is to use all of the little time that you have to craft a strong message and not bother with slides. If you have to choose between spending an hour making a Keynote, Prezi or Powerpoint show or an hour practicing you are better off doing the practicing. By opting for an unplugged presentation you will also discover that it has other advantages beyond the time saving. First of all, not having slides means that you can make last minute changes. More importantly it will give you a stronger connection to the audience.

Sometimes you might need to have a presentation to fit in with the style of the event, or because you are just not used to speaking unplugged. In this case make the simplest possible show but then make sure that you always practice with the slides and a clicker. Exactly how you make a simple show depends on your skill or the resources you have available. In an emergency it might be better to outsource this. Keep in your phone contacts the names of people who can help with this in an emergency.

This approach to making a minimal presentation not only saves you time, it will often give you a better result than a traditional content-rich show. Most people say too much and show too much. By focusing on essentials you make your message much more compelling.

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching

If you are in a speaking emergency and you would like some last-minute help from Andrew Hennigan you can send a message to or call 0046 73 089 44 75. He can also do lectures, group workshops and one-to-one coaching for speaking, pitching and presenting.  


Subrat said…
Useful Tips Andrew.
It reminds me of the essence of "being a minimalist, even while presenting and a maximalist when passing on the message" :D
Thanks for writing this.


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