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The Process

The problem with slideware applications—PowerPoint, in particular, since it’s been around longer and influenced a generation—is that they have, by default, guided users toward presenting in outline form with subject titles and bullet points grouped under each topic heading. This is similar to the ol’ topic sentence in the high school composition class. Seems logical enough, but it is a structure that makes the delivery of the content utterly forgettable for the audience. Storyboarding can help. If you take the time in this part of the preparation stage and set your ideas up in a logical fashion in storyboard format, you can then visualize the sequential movement of your content narrative and the overall flow and “feel” of the presentation.

Since you have already identified your core message away from the computer, you can now begin to create a storyboard that will begin to give shape to the story of your short presentation. Storyboards have their origins in the movie industry, but are used often in business, particularly in the field of marketing and advertising.

One of the simplest and most useful features of PowerPoint and Keynote is the Slide Sorter view (Light Table view in Keynote). You can take your notes and sketches and create a storyboard directly in PowerPoint or Keynote, or you can remain “analog” a bit longer and draft a storyboard on paper or by using Post-its or a whiteboard, etc.

Each situation and each individual is different, and there are indeed many paths to better presentations, including better preparation. My personal approach moving from rough analog sketches to digital slides is not uncommon at all. Many people take a similar approach. I have been surprised, however, that for the most part today individual professionals, entrepreneurs, and students usually just open up PowerPoint and type about a dozen subject slides and then fill them with talking points. This is not an effective approach, nor is it a method I recommend, although it is common.

Below is the four-step approach I usually take. I sometimes skip the third step, but I find it works well when a group is planning the presentation. For students working on a group presentation, Step 3 is vital.

Step 1

Brainstorming. Step back, go analog, get away from the computer, tap into the right brain and brainstorm ideas. I do not edit ideas much here; the aim is to just let it flow. I explore. It may be messy. That’s OK. What I’m tying to do—whether I am working alone or leading a group—is to see the issue from all sides. But to do that, you have to take a step back and see the big picture. When I work with a client, I listen carefully and ask questions. I listen far more than I speak. The listening is the important part. I’ll look for themes in Step 2, although if clear themes are emerging as I listen and probe, then I’ll begin to group items as we go.

Step 2

Grouping & identifying the core. In this step, I look to identify the one key idea that is central (and memorable) from the point of view of the audience. What is the “it” that I want them to get? I use “chunking” to group similar ideas while looking for a unifying theme. The presentation may be organized into three parts, so first I look for the central theme that will be the thread running through the presentation. There is no rule that says your presentation should have three sections or three “acts” from the world of drama. However, three is a good number to aim for because it is a manageable constraint and generally provides a memorable structure. Regardless of how many sections I use, there is only one theme. It all comes back to supporting that key message. The supporting structure—the three parts—is there to back up the core message and the story.

Step 3

Storyboarding off the computer. I take the ideas sketched out on paper in Step 2 and lay them out with Post-it notes. The advantage of this method (compared to the Slide Sorter view in PowerPoint or the Light Table view in Keynote) is that I can easily add content by writing on an additional Post-it and sticking it under the appropriate section without ever losing sight of the structure and flow. In software I have to switch to Slide mode to type or add an image directly on a slide and then go back to the Slide Sorter mode to see the big-picture structure. Alternatively—and this is very popular with my Japanese business students—you can print out blank slides, 12 slides per sheet, which gives you essentially a larger version of a Moleskine Storyboard. If you want larger slides, you can print out nine slides or six. You then can tape these to the wall or spread them out on the desk, keeping them in a notebook when you’re done. As shown below, you can sketch your visuals and write down your key points in a printed version of slideware notes.

Step 4

Storyboarding in Slide Sorter/Light Table view. If you have a clear sense of your structure, you can skip Step 3 and start building the flow of your presentation directly in slideware. Create a blank slide using a template of your choosing (or the simplest version of your company’s template if you must use it). I usually choose a blank slide and then place a simple text box inside it with the size and font I’ll use most often. (You can create multiple master slides in PowerPoint and Keynote.) Then I duplicate several of these slides, since they will contain the visual content of my presentation, short sentences or single words, images, quotes, charts & graphs, etc. The section slides—what presentations guru Jerry Weismann calls bumper slides—should be a different color with enough contrast that they stand out when you see them in the slide sorter view. You can have these slides hidden so that you see them only when planning in Slide Sorter view if you prefer; however, in my case, these slides will serve to give visual closure to one section and open the next section.

Now that I have a simple structure in the Slide Sorter view, I can add visuals that support my narrative. I have an introduction where I introduce the issue or “the pain” and introduce the core message. I then use the next three sections to support my assertions or “solve the pain” in a way that is interesting and informative but that never loses sight of the simple core message.

For detailed advice about creating your story using the Slide Sorter view, I recommend Cliff Atkinson’s Beyond Bullet Points (Microsoft Press).

  • If you feel tempted to use a picture of two hands shaking in front of a globe, put the pencil down, step away from the desk, and think about taking a vacation or investigating aromatherapy.
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