How I Plan a Presentation

As Dan, Brad, and I continue working on “Designing the Conversation”, I am finding helpful snippets that may–or may not–make the final cut of the final product. This is largely an unedited draft, directly from Chapter 3: Structure and Flow, and I hope you will forgive the rawness of the excerpt.

Without further delay, I present to you a fairly extreme example of how I plan a presentation.

Once I have identified the topic for a presentation that I want to share with an audience, I find myself a nice, quite time of day and hunker down in my office for some focused thinking and planning.

Usually, this is around midnight.

When I know my topic, it is typically one I am very familiar with, and I know that there are key areas of learning that I have gone through that will be useful to other people, so get out a pencil and start putting those ideas to paper. I write down as many of them as I can, adding any notes or hints as to what the deeper dive into my content is going to be. I keep going at this until I feel I have exhausted my depth on the topic.

Next, I take a look at all of the content and the notes that I have brain-dumped and analyze them for logical groupings—are there multiple elements that could fit into a single category or topic area? Are there those that have overlap into various higher-level topics and could those start to emerge as a theme for the presentation? My sheet of paper ends up with a lot of hash marks, circles, arrows and extra notes that probably only make sense to me at this point.

After tearing off that sheet of paper, I will put the content together on a new sheet of paper in the topics or categories that started to materialize on the previous page. I will “box them up” and separate them into sections on the page so I can make sure that each high-level topic area has enough content to merit its existance, and start to add and subtract content as it makes sense. Once I go through this activity, I will give each section a number that indicates the flow from topic to topic. A little secret here: This is a point where I will try to find a friend who will actually listen and provide harsh feedback on the idea and the flow. Ten minutes on Skype or a phone call can make all the difference in the world.

Once I feel comfortable with my content areas and flow, I will fire up my favorite word processesing program and start to transcribe an honest-to-goodness outline based on all of the pencil and paper effort that I have done so far. The content generally starts to really form in my mind at this point, and it gets even easier to find the gaps and/or disconnected parts of the presentation. This outline is solidifying all of the thinking that I have done so far, and really feels more like I am playing the role of my own editor.

To many, this might seem like a good time to open up their favorite presentation software and get to work, but time has shown me that by moving my outline to large-sized note cards using a permanent marker that I can start to build my presentation as “notecard wireframes” (see, they are not dead!). By taking the notecard approach, I can start to identify my master slides and the overall design system for the presentation. I also continue to move topic areas around and tinker with structure easily by simply moving cards around on the wall or the floor, which helps to even further work out the kinks in the material.

Note cards of a presentation before slide creationNote cards of a presentation before slide creation

Once I am comfortable with my notecards, I will fire up Keynote and start to build out my presentation, usually laboring over font and color selection far longer than any sane person should, and then I really start to build out my slides in earnest.

2 Responses to “How I Plan a Presentation”

  1. I was having the hardest time sorting out a good order of slides for my latest presentation, and nearly went this route. However, I’m too mobile in my life — working from home, office, coffeehouses, etc., and I didn’t want to deal with stacking and unstacking notecards.
    So I used Keynote’s “Light Table” mode, and set my font at something like 96pt, and had a set of faux 3x5s in my computer. Worked like a charm.


  2. I frequently print out my slides in light table mode and cut them up and move them around–or if I find sections of a deck for re-use, I’ll throw this into the mix of my note cards.

    Now that I’ve set-up a whiteboard wall in my home-office, I am putting more there and scribbling notes next to it. I am sure this is going to keep evolving for me, too.


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