Much like planning is more important than the plan, preparation is collecting and clarifying your thoughts and how you intend to connect with the audience, says leadership columnist Michael Santarcangelo. (iStock via Getty Images)

Preparation is the key for punching up each presentation or high-stakes communication with executives. “No time” is no excuse, so rely on the structure to reveal substance and use the time you have to focus on clarifying your message and connecting with your audience.

Ever get a request to “put a few thoughts (or slides) together” for an executive meeting… tomorrow?

That’s what happened to Jack (not their real name) when the president of the company sent a note at 4 p.m. on Wednesday about a meeting the next day. In part, the message suggested (edited to avoid sharing sensitive information):

"For the meeting tomorrow, I want you to make a brief presentation on cybersecurity. Nothing overly formal, but an awareness thing. Can you put something together for me to review tomorrow morning? I think the angle can be more practical… major developing threats in the business, major developing threats in your family’s personal cyber life, and what the best things you can do to mitigate. Figure you will have less than 10 minutes."

That’s a scary message to get at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday, knowing you already have too much on your plate.

You can’t say no, so what do you do?

They told us what they want

What I love about the request is how much fantastic guidance it includes:

  • Keep your message brief (and focused)
  • Give people a story they’ll remember
  • Focus on the functional instead of going technical
  • Make it personal by offering something about yourself
  • Keep it relevant to the business, but include personal life, too

With no time to spare, how do you get this together?

The key is preparation.

Much like planning is more important than the plan, preparation is collecting and clarifying your thoughts and how you intend to connect with the audience. After coaching dozens of successful leaders across hundreds of situations, preparation is the one key between success and less successful opportunities.

Keep in mind that you have one job: get and keep the attention of your audience.

Start by using the time you have to prepare. Make the most of the time you have by using structure.

A little structure goes a long way

Rely on structure to reveal substance. Nearly two decades ago, I introduced the structure to communicate what counts, and it has just five steps: clarify, connect, design, rehearse, and deliver. This structure is flexible and works for all forms of communication. Follow them in order, and if pressed for time, focus mostly on clarifying your message and connecting with your audience.

Do the work distilling your message and connecting the dots so your audience doesn’t have to. Here are some tips across the five steps to help prepare for your next presentation:

  1. CLARIFY the outcome you want — the one thing you want the audience to think, feel, or do because of paying attention to you?
  2. CONNECT with your audience by showing them how your main point links to something they care about. This is a great place to offer a story to help connect the dots or offer some sort of social proof.
  3. DESIGN the interaction to reduce mental fatigue and give people a map that takes away the mystery, even if it’s just a verbal summary of the two to three steps to reach the outcome.
  4. REHEARSE your message by recording yourself on your computer or phone. Do it standing up, in real time, and then play it back and pay attention. As a bonus tip, harness your inner Coco Chanel and, after watching yourself on the recording, look to remove at least one piece.
  5. DELIVER your message with confidence and have a little fun.

Remember, less is more, so always leave them wanting more.

Make time even when it feels like you have none and use the right structure to get your message across. Investing time to clarify your message and connect with your audience builds the relationship and trust you need to earn — and keep — your seat at the table.