I don’t have to convince most of you that speaking about your library and your work at a conference or in front of a large group of people from an outside organization is a big deal. The information you relay can inspire and move people to make decisions that impact the public That’s powerful!

I spent most of this past week at the Ohio Library Council Conference here in Cincinnati. 600 librarians from around the state of Ohio talked about lots of topics, from readers advisory to accessibility to marketing. And let me tell you–they brought their “A game” when it came to presentations.

I learned a few things from these amazing talks that can help us all. After all, presentations are marketing! There are five key steps to a fantastic presentation.

Define your audience

Clearly defining your audience is the first and most important step in your talk. Before you write an outline or make slides, you need to think about the people who will be in the seats that day.

Ask the host to give you any information they can about attendees. You’ll want to know where they are from, where they work, and the full purpose of the overall event.

Let’s say you’re asked to discuss how the library improves childhood literacy at a half-day conference about community organizations in your town or city. You’ll want to ask the organizers to tell you who will be attending the event, whether they work in the public or private sector, what some of the other speakers will be talking about during the conference, and the message the conference organizers are making to attendees during the day’s event.

If the event or conference has an app, this process gets easier. Most event apps let people add sessions to their schedule. When this is available to me, I usually take that list and look up members of my audience on LinkedIn. I try to memorize faces, first names, and the part of the city, state, or country where that person works.

I can use that information to make some of the points of my talk specifically relevant to those audience members. The best presentations will link the main idea to the people in the audience in a way that resonates with the listeners.

Knowing my audience also makes me feel more comfortable as I’m speaking. The audience members might not be actual friends yet but looking into the faces of people that I’ve seen before, even if it’s only on the internet, helps with nerves!

Figuring out what you’ll actually say

Before you write anything, sit down and do some deep thinking. Ask yourself: How will my presentation solve a problem that my audience is facing? That question will lead to your core message. Write down your core message. It will serve as your guide for everything else you do in preparation for your talk.

Next, write out every single thing you want to say in an ugly rough draft. For my recent talk on email marketing at the Ohio Library Council Conference, my first rough draft was 27 pages long. If you had read it, you might have thought I was slightly drunk while writing it! The point is to write all the thoughts on your topic, no matter what order they pop into your head. Within those 27 pages were the key points that I wanted to get across.

The next step was like weeding and transplanting a garden. I went into that terrible first draft and highlighted all the main points. Then I put those main points into an order that would make sense to the audience. Next, I pulled sentences from the other sections of the rough draft and moved them under the relevant main points. Then I cut everything else! By this point, I was down to about 20 pages.

Finally, go through my main points to find examples and evidence to support them. It’s not enough to tell your audience how to do something. You’ll need to show them that your ideas actually work in the real world! Examples and evidence add to your credibility.

This writing exercise is important. Your final draft should omit everything and anything that has nothing to do with your core message. Those extraneous messages will cause confusion for your audience. They’ll also weaken your message.

Sometimes this is difficult. You may feel very passionate about a piece of advice that has nothing to do with your core message. Cut it anyway. You can always save it for another presentation.

Make your slides

I love this part. I use Canva presentation slides. It’s easy and fun.

My big piece of advice for slide creation is this: don’t put everything you want to say on the slides. A large image and one line with a key point in as large a font as possible is most effective. I use my slides as a visual prompt when I’m giving a talk. I change the slide before I start talking about the next point, and it reminds me of what I’m supposed to say.

Keeping the text of your slide short also helps your audience. While they’re staring at one key sentence, they won’t be distracted by trying to read a bunch of text and they can listen to what you have to say.

Short text is also practical for the actual physical space. Your presentation screen may be smaller than you imagine–most of the time, you won’t know how big it is until you actually walk into the room. Too much text can be hard to read for anyone in the back of the room. And the last thing you want is to create a barrier for your audience.


I have known co-workers who stop after the slide creation step. They wing it on presentation day and it never works. Practice is key to giving a great talk.

As you practice, you work out your tone of voice, body language, and time limit. Practice your presentation until you are comfortable enough to give it without slides and without your script. You never know what technical issues the venue will face on the day of your talk. Practicing your presentation until you know it backwards and forwards will help with nerves, I promise. Do it as many times as you need to feel like you know it.

The day of the talk

Arrive at the venue early. Give yourself time to set up your slides and work through any technical issues with the equipment. I love getting there before my audience so that I can actually greet them as they come in. I might even approach people and ask them questions related to my talk. That helps ease my nerves and makes me feel like I’m talking to friends.

Then go out there and give the best talk possible! You’re prepared and you’re ready. Your words matter and can give value to your audience. Good luck!

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