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The Process

The problem with slideware applications—PowerPoint, in particular, because 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 good ol’ topic sentence in a high school composition class. It 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 to set up your ideas 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.

Because you have already identified your core message away from the computer, you can now begin to create a storyboard that will 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. I have been surprised, however, that for the most part, individual professionals, entrepreneurs, and students usually just open up slideware, 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 five-step approach I usually take. I sometimes skip the third and fourth steps, 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. You need not show restraint here. Editing comes later. In brainstorming, quantity matters. Here, I put ideas down on cards or sticky notes and place them on a table or whiteboard. This is something you can do by yourself or in a group. When working in a group, do not judge others’ ideas. Simply write them down and place them with the others for the time being. At this stage, even crazy ideas are OK because the offbeat ideas may lead to more practical yet still compelling supporting ideas later on. As the great Linus Pauling once said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.”

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Brainstorming “off the grid” away from the computer. This is very much a nonlinear process, and the more ideas the better. Here ideas are suggested and quickly jotted down on Post-it notes.

Step 2

Grouping and identifying the core. In this step, I look to identify 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.” 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.

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Participants in a Presentation Zen seminar at the Kyoto Institute of Technology in Japan begin to group and identify core messages after their brainstorming session.

Step 3

Storyboarding off the computer. I take the Post-it notes roughly arranged in step 2 and lay them out in a sequence. 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 essentially gives you 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.

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After eliminating many ideas created in their brainstorming session, these participants in Japan begin to build the structure of their presentation by arranging their messages in sequence. This part is still a bit messy as they are continuing to eliminate and add new ideas to improve their overall story.

Step 4

Sketch your visuals. Now that you have identified a clear theme, a core takeaway message, and two or three sections containing an appropriate amount of detail (including data, stories, quotes, facts, and so on), you can begin to think about visuals. How can you visualize your ideas to make them more memorable and accessible to your audience? Using a sketchbook and sticky notes, or even scratch paper, begin to change the words on your paper or sticky notes into rough sketches of images—images that eventually will become high-quality photography, quantitative displays, charts, slides featuring quotations, etc. You can use some of the same sticky notes to sketch the rough visualizations you used in step 3, and you can replace some of those notes with new sticky notes.

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You can also use your ideas generated in step 3 to create rough sketches in printed blank slides from your slideware. In this example, key points of the narration behind each visual are written on the side. These sketches became the slides on the right.

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Shown here are the title slide, the “hook,” and the roadmap of the talk. The actual “hook” and background section of the obesity problem covered several slides before I introduced the roadmap/outline.(Images used in these slides from iStockphoto.com.)

Step 5

Storyboarding on the computer. If you have a clear sense of your structure, you can skip steps 3 and 4 and start building the flow of your presentation directly in slideware (though I recommend going through those storyboarding and sketching steps if the stakes of the presentation are high). 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 because they will contain the visual content of my presentation: short sentences or single words, images, quotes, charts and graphs, etc. The section slides—what presentation 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 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 in which 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.

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ABOVE Rough outline from step 2 for a presentation I created on presentation delivery called “The Naked Presenter.” Here, I used a simple pad instead of Post-it notes. However, from the ideas on this pad, I sketched rough visuals and put down key words on Post-it notes to build the structure just as in step 4 (not shown here).

Much of our communication today exhibits the quality of intangibility. Services, software, causes, thought leadership, change management, company vision—they’re often more conceptual than concrete, more ephemeral than firm. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But we regularly struggle when communicating these types of ideas because they are essentially invisible. It’s difficult to share one’s vision when there’s nothing to see. Expressing these invisible ideas visually, so they feel tangible and actionable, is a bit of an art form, and the best place to start is not with the computer. A pencil and a sheet of paper will do nicely.

Why take this seemingly Luddite approach? Because presentation software was never intended to be a brainstorming or drawing tool. The applications are simply containers for ideas and assets, not the means to generate them. Too many of us have fallen into the trap of launching our presentation application to prepare our content. In reality, the best creative process requires stepping away from technology and relying on the same tools of expression we grew up with—pens and pencils. Quickly sketch lots of ideas. These can be words, diagrams, or scenes; they can be literal or metaphorical. The only requirement is that they express your underlying thoughts. The best thing about this process is that you don’t need to figure out how to use drawing tools or where to save the file. Everything you need you already have (and don’t say you can’t draw; you’re just out of practice). This means you can generate a large quantity of ideas in a relatively short amount of time.

For me, one idea per sticky note is preferable. And I use a Sharpie. The reason? If it takes more space than a Post-it and requires more detail than a Sharpie can provide, the idea is too complex. Simplicity is the essence of clear communication. Additionally, sticky notes make it easy to arrange and rearrange content until the structure and flow feels right. On the other hand, many people on my team use a more traditional storyboarding approach, preferring to linearly articulate detailed ideas. That’s fine, too. The point is not to prescribe exactly how to work but to encourage you to generate a lot of ideas.

Often ideas come immediately. That’s good, but avoid the potential pitfall of going with the first thing that comes to mind. Continue to sketch and force yourself to think through several more ideas. It takes discipline and tenacity—especially when it feels like you solved it on the first try. Explore words and word associations to generate several ideas. Use mind-mapping and word-storming techniques to create yet more ideas (digital natives might prefer mind-mapping software for this phase). Stronger solutions frequently appear after four or five ideas have percolated to the top. Continue generating ideas even if they seem to wander down unrelated paths; you never know what you might find, after all. Then, once you’ve generated an enormous amount of ideas, identify a handful that meet the objective of the vision or concept you’re trying to communicate. It matters less what form they take at this point than that they get your message across.

By the way, cheesy metaphors are a cop-out. 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. Push yourself to generate out-of-the-box ideas. Take the time and spend the creative energy because the payoff will be a presentation people not only remember, but one they take action on.

Now, begin to sketch pictures from the ideas. These sketches become visual triggers that spark more ideas. The sketching process should be loose and quick—doodles really. Generate as many pictures as you can. In this way, sketching serves as proof-of-concept because ideas that are too complex, time consuming, or costly will present themselves as ripe for elimination. Don’t worry about throwing things away—that’s why you generated a lot of ideas in the first place. In fact, you’re ultimately going to have to throw all of them away except for one (designers recognize this as the destructive aspect of the creative process; it’s a good thing). Some of the ideas you generate may require multiple scenes built across a few slides versus a snapshot on a single slide. On the other hand, sometimes it’s as simple as using the perfect picture or diagram. Focus on whatever works best, not on the idea that’s easiest to execute.

Be prepared to enlist the help of a designer. (You did plan far enough ahead to make sure you’ve got one available, right?) There’s no shame in seeking professional help; what’s important is effective communication, regardless of whether or not you have the skill set to execute it.

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Brainstorming with Nancy Duarte (bottom right) and two of her staff, Ryan and Michaela, at Duarte headquarters in Silicon Valley.

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Concept 1 The Illustrations and scenes were made out of yarn. Each slide connects to the next which gives an illusion of panning through a scene when transitioning to the next frame.

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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.

—Nancy Duarte

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