Presentations are forks in the road. If you succeed in your objectives, you may open the door to a new job, a promotion, or funding for your latest venture, but if you fail, you could leave with a damaged reputation and a lost opportunity. The stakes are too high for you to go on stage and "wing it."

Unfortunately, most people--professionals of all industries and experience levels--don't know how to effectively prepare for a presentation. They focus all their energy on making colorful PowerPoint slides, or try to memorize specific facts with which to wow the audience, rather than taking a look at the fundamental environment in which they'll be presenting. 

Before you even start creating the outline of your presentation, be sure you're asking these seven questions:

1. Who is the audience? This is the first question you should ask, and you shouldn't always assume you know the answer. Pretend you're an entrepreneur and you have a new product, and a friend of yours asks you to present it for his company. It could be your friend and a few of his coworkers you're meeting with, but it could also be the president and board of directors. Each situation would require a different approach and a different level of formality. Understand exactly what types of people are going to constitute your audience--otherwise, you could end up writing for the wrong crowd.

2. How big is the audience? This is another important question that will help you prepare effectively, though it's more about the actual presentation than the writing process itself. With a large audience, you'll need to be concise, direct, and fast-paced to keep their attention, looking around the room for eye contact and generally going about your presentation with minimal interruptions. With a small audience, you'll have to pace your presentation more slowly, pausing for potential questions from the audience and gearing your body language to engage fewer participants. If you don't know the exact number attending, a range is often suitable here.

3. Where will you be presenting? This will help you determine how to prepare. Imagine you have a prototype of your new product, and you're going to be presenting before a small group of people. If you'll be meeting around a table in a small boardroom, you can bring the prototype itself and show it off firsthand to your audience. If you're in a large auditorium, however, you'll need a much bigger, visually accessible medium for your distant audience. Knowing the location will also allow you to understand and prepare your voice for the acoustics of the room.

4. What materials will be available to you? First, think of all the basics. Let's say you have a PowerPoint presentation ready--will you bring it on a flash drive, or will you need to bring a laptop in? Will they even have the proper equipment to hook your device up to a projector? Will they have a microphone system or will you need to project your voice? Is there a podium or a stage, or is it a more informal gathering? These questions will help you understand what you need to bring as well as how to prepare your presentation.

5. How long will you have to speak? This is a critical question that too many people overlook. It is never safe to assume how long you'll have to speak. If your audience is expecting your presentation to last a few minutes and you end up going half an hour, you could bore them to death. If it's supposed to be more than an hour and it's only a half hour, you'll look like you don't have much worthwhile material. Either way, you'll look underprepared, so find out the ideal length of a presentation and practice it until you're confident that you're well within the time constraints. Knowing exactly how much time you'll is one of the most fundamental (and important) presentation tips

6. Will there be a Q&A afterward? If you walk into a presentation and get hit with a Q&A session you aren't prepared for, you could be assaulted with tough questions that undermine whatever reputation you built up during the course of your initial speech. Find out if there's a Q&A session afterward, and find out approximately how long it will last. Think of the hardest possible questions someone could ask you, and have answers ready for each and every one of them.

7. Who else is speaking? Unlike the other questions in this list, this question won't ruin you if you don't know the answer. Your presentation won't change much based on who else is presenting before or after you, but knowing the answer will help you better understand the dynamics of the event. For example, if you're the only speaker, there's going to be more pressure on you than if you are only one in six. It won't kill you, but it's worth knowing in advance.

Hopefully, you can answer most of these questions on your own or with a bit of research. If not, ask the person who invited you to present, or call the venue to get more specific information. These should always be your first step in preparing a presentation, and only then should you move onto sketching an initial draft. The better prepared you are, and the more you know about the circumstances of your presentation, the better you'll perform in the end.