Sometimes the hardest part of your presentation is just figuring out its purpose. Before you can start practicing, before you can memorize, before you can even write out your opening... you need to know the point you're trying to make.

In my years of coaching, I've developed two tests to help speakers tease out their main theme:

  1. What keeps you awake at night? This may be a problem that needs solving, an injustice that needs righting, or a solution you just can't wait to share with the world.

  2. What subject is so scary and so personal that talking about it on stage would make you want to throw up?

(Around the office we call these the "up late and regurgitate" tests.)

You may not think your shareholder's call needs to solve a problem or connect emotionally, but read the best of Warren Buffett's letters to shareholders, and you'll find that's exactly what they do.

Let's take each test in turn.

Solving the problem

Start the search for your one big idea by exploring what keeps you up at night.


Because whatever keeps you awake touches something deep. Something you're passionate about; something in which you either are, or want to become, an authority.

That's the level of depth at which all great presentations work.

I like to use this test as a way to get at the logical side of your content--what Aristotle called logos.

Every good presentation has a clear, logical structure, and uses evidence to support its claims. That's logos.

And that's where your mind will be directed when you turn it toward the problems that keep you from counting sheep.

Getting to the heart

Aristotle said there was another piece to every good presentation: pathos, or emotion. (Pathos is where we get the English word "pathetic," which originally meant simply "relating to the emotions.")

How do you find the right emotional components for your talk?

By drawing from the core of who you are.

I'll be the first to admit: that isn't easy. All of us have some heavy, secret stuff down in the dark.

And furthermore, not every presentation needs you to bear your soul! There's a reason you won't find Kleenex on the boardroom table.

And yet every powerful talk connects with the audience's emotions. Yes, even your corporate audience, Mr. Gray-flannel-suit.

If your speech is built around your personal story (as most good TED talks are), then dive to the deeps.

What your audience wants is authenticity and vulnerability here, and so if you're talking about hard stuff, they'll understand if it's difficult. When your voice catches, they'll know why.

And if your speech is heavier on the logos than the pathos (as in most business presentations), you're still not off the hook--you've got to do some emotional work too--but now the task is slightly different. Chances are you'll want to incorporate more humor, and direct the emotional appeal to your listeners' needs and desires.

It's not just enough to stop with what keeps you up at night. Think about your audience and ask the same for them. In doing so, you'll identify the concerns and desires that will ensure your talk will resonate.

Getting to "why"

I'm going into such detail here because getting clear about the "why" of your talk--its purpose--is crucial for everything that follows.

You've got the two tests; now let's put them to work.

The key here is to think like your listeners. How will you want to frame your problem so that they'll understand? What level of emotional appeals--both the light and the heavy stuff--will they need to connect with your message?

In fact, it all boils down to this: why are you speaking? And why should they listen?

[[give quick context to who he is]] Simon Sinek puts it well in his TEDx talk (and book Start with Why):

"People don't buy what you do. They buy why you do it."

Maybe your "why" is purely informational; maybe the only reason you've been asked to speak is to work through facts and figures. This tends to be pretty rare, though.

In most cases, you're there to persuade. To get the audience to think just a little more like you, or see why your solution is the right one. You're there to create change.

And that's it. That's your "why."

Don't shy away from it. Push forward with it.

Don't say "Here are a few reasons why I'd like to suggest that we consider the possibility of...". Who wants to be convinced by someone with such tepid passion?

Instead, frame your One Big Idea with the most powerful language you can muster: "I'm here today to convince you that...".  

Let the force of your purpose carry you through the rest of writing.