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Create an Outline

When it’s time for the rubber to hit the road and your proposal needs to become tangible, pulling together an outline can be your best strategy for identifying the structure of your presentation. For those of you who remember creating outlines in high-school English class with something less than fondness, don’t feel too tied down to some official outline format that has all of its Roman numerals in the right place.

An outline is helpful to provide a roadmap for you to follow when you begin crafting your actual presentation (Figure 4.2). It enables you to jump into the next phases of creating your presentation fairly quickly, and helps you move toward a completed presentation without getting too overwhelmed with the amount of work ahead of you. Creating an outline helps you get crisp with your main points, and it makes sure that you deliver on what you want your presentation to be about and what the audience will walk away with. It also helps you filter out subtopics that, while appropriate to your topic, don’t support the main thing you want your audience to remember.

Figure 4-2

FIGURE 4.2 An example outline structure

And the best part about the outline is that it doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t) remain static. Blowing it up and creating subsequent versions will help you further refine your ideas and find the focus you need to build a solid, well-structured foundation to your presentation.

Start Analog

There are a number of reasons to start your outline away from a computer, tablet, or other digital device. Working digitally tends to put people in a certain mindset that has been reinforced by years, maybe decades, of habits and ways of working while “at a computer.” Even if you are using a mobile device, which may seem less constraining than sitting in front of a computer screen, starting digital can be too distracting to allow you to get to the level of quietness that drives structural clarity.

Digital devices include fantastic access to all sorts of resources that can help you research and create presentations, but this always-connected access is also what can keep you from focusing on the bones of the presentation, on the map you need to create to help you get to your presentation destination and ensure that the audience can follow you. This is why you can often make the most progress with creating an outline structure by finding a spot where you can concentrate for a few minutes and just start by putting pen or pencil to paper (Figure 4.3).

Figure 4-3

FIGURE 4.3 Very rough paper notes that will eventually lead to a more structured outline

Don’t worry too much at this point about your structure or level of detail; just note your ideas, your main points, and your subpoints. Keep this piece of paper with you as much as possible so that you can quickly jot down ideas as they occur to you in the shower, in the middle of the night, or while watching other presentations. As you work through this, you will eventually find a structure forming naturally that will help lead you to the next stage of a more formal outline.

If you are a more visual person, you may find the space and flexibility of a whiteboard or a big sheet of paper helpful for starting to carve out your structure and outline for your presentation (Figure 4.4). Another benefit of the whiteboard is that it can be easier to share with people and to talk them through what you are thinking about. Getting feedback at all stages of preparing your presentation is immensely valuable.

Figure 4-4

FIGURE 4.4 An example of a whiteboard outline

As you start to build in more detail and get to a stage where you are reining in all of your diverse ideas and laying them out into a more defined approach, visualizing your structure can be very useful (Figure 4.5). Consider writing down each of your main points and subpoints on separate pieces of paper that you can shuffle around to better see the orders and structures that make sense. In her book Resonate, presentation guru Nancy Duarte advocates using analog methods such as sticky notes that can be placed on a wall or the floor to better “see” your structure.

Figure 4-5

FIGURE 4.5 An example of an index card outline

The more clearly you define your structure in these ways, the easier it will be for your audience to also grasp the structure and stay attached to the points in your presentation so that they can put it all together in their own heads and identify with what you are talking about. This flexible analog work can also help you start to tackle your transitions and notice where you can draw parallels and connections between things that you are discussing. These relationships will help solidify the presentation for both you and your audience.

Don’t worry about constraining yourself too much by your outline. Even if you are preparing a presentation that is less linear or that allows for audience interactivity within the presentation, some sort of outline will help you hit your marks and highlight the most important parts within your presentation.

Move to Digital

Now that you have at least a general outline in analog format, you can start creating a shell of your presentation that will set you well on your way to all of those slides you have been obsessing about. One way to do this is to start by literally moving your analog outline into slides (Figure 4.6). It seems like a small step, but often just creating these placeholders will help you transition into what can be a scary part of the presentation process.

Figure 4-6

FIGURE 4.6 An initial digital outline represented in slides

Once you have created that initial digital outline in whatever format you will be eventually presenting in, you can use it as the foundational structure upon which you build the rest of your presentation (Figure 4.7). This will allow you to stick to the structure you have spent time planning according to your presentation goals. What’s more, if you keep your initial outline-like slides in your deck at least until the very end, you will easily know when you start to go off track or add too much detail to a particular section, or whether you are missing big chunks.

Figure 4-7

FIGURE 4.7 The next version of the digital outline

You may decide to eventually remove all of the slides that “show” your structure—that is up to you, your style, and what will be most successful for your presentation. But keeping them in until you have almost completed your slide deck (or whatever visual tools you are using) for your presentation will keep you honest throughout the process and sticking to your most important points in a smooth flow.

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