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Four steps to preparing irresistible presentations


If you’re more frightened than flattered when asked to give a formal presentation, you’re in good company. Many nurses are terrified to present because they’ve never been taught how to share what they know best in public venues.

Memorable presentations are as much about behind-the-scenes preparation as they are about the presenter’s charisma or relevance of the content. What audiences don’t see is as important as what they do. Whether you’ll present to a professional audience or a lay group, don’t wait until you’re peering into a sea of expectant faces to discover the secret of successful presenters.

Just as dancers and actors must put in hours of practice, presenters must devote time and effort to preparing. When you do, you’ll be rewarded with evaluation comments like this: "In my 30 years of attending nursing conferences, yours was the best session yet. It was so well tailored to our interests. You obviously spent many hours in preparation."

This article shares four simple steps for preparing presentations that speak to your audience.

Step 1: Become a reflective practitioner

Have you ever wondered how nurse presenters come up with such intriguing topics? They do it by stepping away from the action to reflect on their practice. Distance offers a new perspective that helps them see the presenting possibilities in their everyday activities.

To show you how to become a reflective practitioner, I’ll give an example from my consulting practice: When the nursing staff at a health center requests a workshop session on presenting, I ask myself what challenge I can help them with. One of the staff nurse’s greatest presentation challenges is to believe she knows something audiences want to learn. If my presentation engages my audience members in sharing the amazing things they do, they can help each other find the seeds of presentation ideas in their everyday practice.

What challenges does your audience face that you can help them with? Don’t worry if you’re stumped. Keep in mind that challenges come in two forms—problems and visions of the possible. To get your creative juices flowing, jot down the problems or possibilities that come your way over the next week or so. From that list, select the challenge that makes your eyes glitter most. Remember—the more intrigued you are by the challenge you choose, the easier it’ll be for you to intrigue your audience.

Step 2: Capitalize on your presenting style

What’s your style as a presenter? Even if you’ve never made a formal presentation, you share information informally all the time with colleagues, patients, and families. By including informal as well as formal presentations, you’ll be able to complete the checklist in the jot box below to determine your presenting style. Check all items that apply.

  1. I shine when I’m center-stage.
  2. I share the spotlight by asking questions of my audience.
  3. I enjoy sharing what I know with others.
  4. I tailor what I share to fit participants’ interests.
  5. I am most comfortable lecturing.
  6. I am most comfortable facilitating a dialogue.

If you checked items 1, 3, and 5, you’re most likely a Sage on the Stage; you enjoy lecturing from a prepared outline of informational points. If you checked 2, 4, and 6, chances are you’re a Guide on the Side; you prefer establishing a dialogue that allows you to address concerns or questions as they arise. If you checked all six items, you’re a Best of Both, comfortable with both lecturing and facilitating a dialogue; in fact, you can switch back and forth depending on the learning needs of your audience.

So what’s your presenting style? If you’re still unsure, don’t worry. Over the next few days, observe how you share information with colleagues, patients, and families. If you tend to communicate sets of facts, you’re probably a Sage. Do you engage people in dialogues and respond to their questions and concerns as they arise? Then you’re more of a Guide. If you lecture and establish a dialogue, you’re most likely a Best of Both.

By becoming aware of your presenting style, you can play to your strengths. If you’re a Sage, seek opportunities to lecture. If you’re a Guide, aim to facilitate seminars or workshops. If you’re a Best of Both, you may choose to lecture or facilitate, or both.

Now that you’ve selected a presentation idea and identified your presenting style preference, it’s time to get organized.

Step 3: Organize your thoughts

Just as you gather the necessary equipment before starting a procedure, getting organized is an essential part of preparing a presentation. The best presentations revolve around a single focus, a special audience, and a sexy slant.

What’s your single focus?

Big ideas are wonderful places to begin but are too broad for a single presentation. If, for example, I tried to design a workshop on presenting, I’d be overwhelmed with too much information. That’s why big ideas must be narrowed to a presentation-sized focus. To show you how to narrow your idea to a focus, I’ll use my consulting challenge as an example:

  • Kathy’s big idea: Presenting
  • Kathy’s topic: Behind-the-scenes preparations that make presentations engaging
  • Kathy’s focus: What staff nurses need to know to prepare engaging presentations

Presenting is the most general concept, so it’s my idea. The topic narrows the scope of my big idea to preparing for presentations. The focus—what staff nurses need to know to prepare engaging presentations—is even more specific.

Now it’s your turn. In the jot box below, write your practice challenge from step 1 next to the item where it fits best. Note that my practice challenge turned out to be my focus. As with the first two steps, give yourself time to narrow your idea and topic to a focus.

Your idea, topic, and focus for presentation

Idea [most general]:

Topic [more specific]:

Focus [most specific]:

Who’s your special audience?

Imagine you’re making two presentations on diabetes—
one to professionals and one to a lay audience. The information you include, how you present it, and the language you use may differ with the audience. If you keep your audience in mind as you plan, your presentation will address what they want or need to learn. My audience consists of professionals (staff nurses). Is your audience professional or lay?

What’s your sexy slant?

When you stand in a supermarket checkout line, the magazine with the most compelling headline is likely to grab your attention. With presentations, the same concept holds: A sexy slant makes for a title audiences can’t resist. If your single presentation-sized focus is a pie, your slant is the juiciest slice. My title is "Four steps to preparing irresistible presentations." This slant is appealing because readers love numbered how-to steps, and the promise of irresistible presentations is alluring.

Finding a slant can be fun. When Julia Child searched for a title for her first cookbook, she offered to make a dish for the friend or family member who came up with the snappiest slant.

Step 4: Ask for help

Presentations are easier to design, deliver, and evaluate when you have peer mentors. Although these mentors may or may not be nurses, they should be caring colleagues who can help you improve your presentations.

To obtain the peer mentoring you need, make your request as specific as possible.

  • If you want a trusted person to remind you that you can do this, find a rooter.
  • Need help with design and delivery? Then you’re in the market for a co-presenter.
  • If you’re presenting on a subject that’s new to you, seek a peer mentor with expert knowledge.
  • If you’re unfamiliar with your audience, an audience peer mentor can ensure your message matches your audience. For instance, when I present to school nurse audiences, I ask a school nurse colleague to be my peer mentor.
  • An experienced presenter—a presenter mentor—can help you with everything from focusing your idea to developing an evaluation tool.

The jot box below can help you figure out what type of help you need. As you do this, consider possible mentor candidates. You may need to ask various colleagues to serve various functions—or you may find one person who can serve multiple functions.

Peer mentor role Task Name
Rooter Confidence builder     
Co-presenter Collaborator on design,
delivery, or both
Expert Content master     
Audience Specialist familiar with
Presenter Seasoned presenter
experienced in mentoring
other presenters

Still unsure whom to ask? Look at colleagues (wheth­er you’ve known them for years or just met them) with fresh eyes. Ask yourself how each one could help. If you’re hesitant to approach a busy colleague, make it a mutually beneficial partnership by offering to peer men­tor his or her presentation in return.

While audiences don’t see your behind-the-scenes preparations, they will thank you for presentations that help them transform everyday problems into visions of the possible.

Selected references

Heinrich KT. Give and take: Effective partnership practices propel publishing success. Reflections On Nursing Leadership; April 2011. Accessed January 11, 2012.

Heinrich KT. A Nurse’s Guide to Presenting and Publishing: Dare to Share. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett; 2008.

Schulman L. The Carnegie Teaching Academy Campus Program: Continuing the conversation about teaching. The Course Portfolio. Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education; 1998.

Kathleen T. Heinrich is a principal in KTH Consulting in Guilford, Connecticut and author of A Nurse’s Guide to Presenting and Publishing: Dare to Share.


  • I am using this article for practicum students as they prepare to present their projects to their sites. Thanks for this

  • I enjoyed the article and shared it with new graduate RNs who were writing abstracts for the first time. I am surprised, however, that the “sage on the stage to guide on the side” was not credited to educator Alison King.

    King, A (1993). From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side
    College Teaching Vol. 41, No. 1 (Winter, 1993), pp. 30-35

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