Two tricks for a great presentation

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I have two tricks for preparing presentations that may help to crystallize your subject matter. I build a divided argument tree and I write prose first, then illustrate. These may not work for you, particularly if you have a formal agenda or marketing constraints, but they’ve helped me out of writer’s block and tricky situations before.

The divided argument tree

When I’m trying to write, I often use a trick of dividing things in two. This means I start with my central argument, then split it into two more detailed sub-statements, and then split those in two, and so on. In the end, I have a “tree” of arguments that can be summarize in one, two, four, eight, or more sentences. Here’s an (admittedly bad) example of this approach.

An arbitrary example of a divided argument tree

Notice how you can read it across the top (“exercise is good for you,” a simple title) or the bottom (“Exercise burns calories, and a net surplus of calories causes weight gain…”) This approach does two things: first, it forces you to be disciplined in your thinking about a subject. In the example above, certain things stand out: Do healthy people really enjoy life more? Is the ultimate goal of life to have many good experiences?

Often, building this kind of tree will show you holes in your argument or reveal controversies that can make a presentation interesting. It’s a good technique for all kinds of writing, not just for presentations.

Write prose, then illustrate

The advice I always give others about presenting is that slides are an excellent seasoning but a horrible main course. As a presenter, you should know what you’re trying to say, and then enhance it with the right imagery.  After all, it’s called public speaking—not public slide-reading.

Next time you’re called on to present, try this:

  • Instead of making slides, write a blog-length post (400-600 words.)
  • Obsess over this for a while: write it, put it aside, return to it and edit it with a clear mind. Make it as succinct as possible while still conveying what you need to.
  • Open up PowerPoint, Keynote, or whatever presentation tool you use.
  • Take each sentence in your post that’s a complete thought and paste it into the speakers’ notes of a new slide. You may have to combine 2-3 sentences to capture a complete thought, but stay as close to one sentence a slide as possible.
  • For each slide, find the best content you can:
    • If it’s a narrative or editorial statement, find some imagery that’s funny or inspiring to evoke the sentiment you’re expressing. Doom and gloom? Use a gravestone. Optimism? A bird taking flight. Flickr’s photo search and creative commons licensing is your friend.
    • If it’s a figure or trend, use the minimum chart possible. Make it look like an infographic: Typography, big numbers to convey the important things.
    • If it’s a key point you want to emphasize, use 4-6 words in a big font on the screen and nothing else.
  • Now try presenting your slide deck.

You’ll probably tweak it for length and content. But in my experience, this will immediately improve your speaking, because you’ll have thought about what you’re trying to say, and you’ll be helping the audience understand it rather than asking them to listen to you and read your slides at the same time.

If you build your prose with a divided argument tree, then turn it into speakers’ notes and enhance it, and practice it on real people until it’s second nature, you’re much more likely to deliver a memorable presentation.