Giving a great presentation: starting from scratch

How do we give great presentations?  In this post I wanted to take readers and speakers to the very first step, when we start planning a talk.

This post isn’t about technology.  It’s not about revision (see the last lines).  It also assumes that readers have some concept or assignment in mind for their presentation; brainstorming is another subject.  This is about starting and building materials for a talk.

When I start to create a presentation, I like to begin by thinking of two items at the same time: what I’m going to talk about at the macro level, and how much time there will be.  This combination helps narrow down a topic what it threatens to balloon into enormity (“I’m talking about the fate of higher education! but I only have 35 minutes”).  This seems like an obvious starting point, but not enough speakers take it seriously, as we can tell from presenters who ramble around a sprawling concept space.  Or, worse, from speakers who don’t understand time limits.

Start thinking of how your talk will unfold in time.  What are the main points you want to address?  After you’ve developed that for a while, bring it to life by envisioning the crucial element: the audience.

Bryan gets ready to present to his town's annual meeting

What do they need to know from your thinking?  What’s best suited to who and where they are?  How much can they handle?  Should they be provoked, soothed, terrified, or amused? What do you need to add to their thoughts and lives? Consider this group of humans and where you want to take them.  That is the essential arc of your presentation.

At this point it’s a good idea to settle into some medium for composition.  PowerPoint, Word, Prezi, scratch paper, an audio file, whatever works: the important thing is to start getting content out of your head and into an external medium.  It doesn’t have to be the medium you’ll eventually present from, so long as you can refer to it and work within it.  I often do this in a mix of PowerPoint and a bunch of web browser tabs.

You might not start with a blank page (or file).  Even if this is a new subject for your presentation career, you might be able to re-use content from elsewhere, like images, sound clips, or text quotes.  This can help you get over the popular fear of a blank page (or file) and also give you some creative momentum.

For example, I maintain a desktop directory of PowerPoint stacks organized by subject.  Some are full presentation decks on big topics (digital storytelling, the Horizon Report; 50-100 slides, roughly), while others are short (an individual scenario, a description of one method; 2-12 slides).

A PowerPoint presentation directory

I raid these for material.  Some I take whole, while others I copy in order to hack up.  These pre-existing bits grow in my new deck, giving form to my thinking.  I mix and remix them with each other and with new slides, editing and deleting as I go.  I also have several directories of images I use for specific research areas, like all images for the FTTE report.

If you’re not progressing as quickly as you like, hunt down some inspiration.  YouTube, SlideShare, and the blogosphere have many, many presentations you can look to.  Some might be aspirational, really excellent talks that you’d like to aim for.  I also find flawed or openly bad presentations to be useful, as they remind me of what not to do.  They’re also good for moral boosting, like PDQ Bach is for composers.  Inspirational examples can help your creativity both in form and content.

It’s usually a good idea at this point to start determining the major object you want to accomplish with the presentation. This is not the topic, but your take on it. This could be a thesis, especially for an academic audience.  Academics also think of this as an argument.  Your object might also be a call to action, as for a political talk or a sales pitch (“So buy my widget!”).  Or it could be a journey.  I know it’s a bad cliche, but bear with me.  Sometimes a speaker needs to take their audience through a subject as a survey or story or briefing.  The journey metaphor helps scope this out (start, middle, end) and reminds us that it is a different thing than a thesis or call to action.-

Outlines and scales, with penguin, boy, and BionicleOnce you have that object in mind, you have two choices, depending on how your mind works.  Either you start small and build up from there, or you prefer to begin with the big picture and drill down.  I’m usually  the latter, but will give advice for both.

A) Micro to macro

You have great small stuff: a single slide or a phrase.  Get them down and grow from there.  Each item elicits more from your mind.  Grab or describe media items as they go (“Pause dramatically here”, “Painting of Robespierre here”).

Eventually you’ll see several major points or ideas coalesce.  Think of these as subheaders under your big topic, or key supports for that argument.  They will appear organically from your growing presentation.  Once you realize them, you can tie them together logically, and you’ll know where to start revising.

B) Macro to micro

Take your presentation’s object and break it down into top-level points, around two to four of them.  Consider them subheaders in an outline or the major divisions of the whole.  Then figure out what goes under each one.

As each of those subheaders grows, you’ll have to give each one its own internal logic.  Once that’s in place, return to the top-level object and make sure each of those subheaders connects logically with the others.  They should flow from one to the next by a principle your audience can grasp: development over time, challenge and response, movement in space, etc.

You can then break down those subheads into smaller pieces, and those pieces will probably be handfuls of slides, or textual paragraphs.  It’s an outline, either literally or conceptually.  Now you can fill it in.

The next steps

At this point you will have something between a detailed outline and a rough draft.  If you’re using presentation media, you should have some items assembled.  You might or might not have a title.

Set it all aside.  Save it (in two locations).  Walk away.  Get some sleep.  You need to return to the stuff with fresh eyes.  And with a powerful tool for revision, the subject of the next post in this series: how to use storytelling to improve your presentation.

(all images mine)

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One Response to Giving a great presentation: starting from scratch

  1. Pingback: What makes a great webinar? Part 1 | Bryan Alexander

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