You have a big presentation coming up. Perhaps you’re raising money for your new start-up or you’re competing to win a lucrative new contract. In any case, there’s a lot riding on the presentation. You want to make sure you’re at your best and that your message meets the needs and expectations of your audience.

I’ve given many presentations over the years. I’ve done presentations to raise over $50M in venture capital, to close new sales contracts, and even to teach meditation to kids. I think the hardest part of any presentation is the opening. If you can get that right, then the rest of your talk flows easily. But if you get the opening wrong, you’ll never fully recover. Here’s a simple technique that I’ve found very powerful to start your presentations off on the right foot and to tailor your message to any audience, be they VC sharks or indifferent kids. ☺

To start, you’ll need a partner or a coach. Get together in person or on the phone and brainstorm a list of ten to twenty questions that you think the audience wants answered in your presentation. Put yourself in their shoes. How do they view the world? What problems do they have? What situations and challenges are they currently facing? And, of course, what do they want to get out of your presentation?

It should go without saying that you’ll want to learn about your audience ahead of time. Research the organization online. Get a sense of trends, products, competition, people, strategy, and so on. Speak to an organizational insider. “I’m coming in to give a talk next week. Can you give me a sense for the organizational climate? What would the audience like to hear? What’s currently happening that has an impact on this topic?” All of this information should act as fodder for the brainstorming session with your partner or coach.

Researching your audience and brainstorming with a partner are two sides of the crucial first step that you should never skip – even if you’re presenting to similar kinds of audiences. Even if you think you know the audience down pat, do this step. You’ll be surprised at the new questions you come up with that lead to new perspectives and a new and poignant slant on your talk.

Once you have a fresh list of ten to twenty questions that your audience is likely asking themselves, come up with the top five. Get to five. No more, no less. Write these down on a PowerPoint slide (or a flip chart) and give it the title “The Top 5 Questions We Think You’re Asking.” Insert this slide as the first slide in your deck.

Next, brainstorm with your partner a list of ten to twenty questions about what you want to know. Then whittle this list down to the top 5. Create a new slide and label it “The Top 5 Questions We’d Like to Have Answered.” Put this slide second.

If you’ve done this step, you’re 80% of the way to a great presentation. Here’s how you put it into action. At the start of your presentation, say this verbatim: “Thank you for having me here. To prepare for this presentation, I got together with (name and title of your partner or coach) and we spent twenty minutes trying to put ourselves in your shoes. We came up with a list of the top five questions we think you’re asking. If it’s OK, I’d like to review this list with you and see if these are indeed the questions you’re asking. May I review this list now?”

Then go to your slide and review, one by one, each of the Top 5 Questions. Then, and this is very important, ask for confirmation and additional questions as follows: “So, are these the Top 5 Questions you’re asking? If so, great. If not, what additional questions do you have?” Then listen to those questions and write them down in the room where everyone can see them. Let the audience know whether you will or will not address them.

Starting your presentation this way does two very important things: 1) It lets the audience know that you’re not just coming in to pitch your wares, that you’ve given thought to their particular situation, and that you are going to address their particular questions or concerns. It immediately sets you apart from average presenters who show up with a standard deck, make some pleasantries and, like robots, move through their presentations. 2) It creates a dialogue up front so that you know where your audience really stands and it allows you to tailor your talk to their particular needs. Trust me, knowing that you got the Top 5 Questions all wrong at the start is priceless information. “Oh, you’re not interested in this at all; what you’re really interested in is this. Great. I can talk to that too.” And you’ve just averted disaster.

Once you’ve reviewed the Top 5 Questions, asked for confirmation and written down any additional questions, before you do anything else, go to your second slide (or second page of your flip chart) and say this: “In addition to the Top 5 Questions we thought you were likely asking, we also have the Top 5 Questions we’d like to have answered. May I review those with you now?” Wait for confirmation from the group and then read each of the questions you’d like to know.

Now what usually happens is that the group starts answering your questions without prompting. If this is the case, run with it. You’ll pick up some additional nuggets of information that will further allow you to tailor your presentation. However, if they don’t answer your questions right away, now begin your presentation. But do it in the context of answering their Top 5 Questions and additional questions that emerged. You can get answers to the questions you want answered periodically during your presentation.

At the end, wrap up your presentation by referring back to the Top 5 Questions and any additional questions they were asking: “OK, let’s see how we did. Here were the Top 5 Questions and any additional questions you had. Did we answer each one?” Doing this as a close reconfirms for the audience that you gave them exactly what they asked for. It shows courtesy and respect, while confirming that you were on target. Next, review the Top 5 Questions you wanted answered as well, thanking your audience for their input.

When you walk away you’ll appreciate how valuable this formula is. You will see that, in a few simple steps, you’ve accomplished multiple things: you gave a great presentation tailored to your audience’s needs, you answered all their questions, and you obtained the information you needed.

One final word of caution. After you see how successful this technique is, you will be tempted to cut corners and skip the important first step of research and brainstorming with your partner. If you do this, you’ll miss out on key but subtle differences for each audience and fall short of your potential each time. Guaranteed. It seems like a small thing – but trust me, it makes all the difference.

Here’s to your giving winning presentations. Encore!!