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How I solved my biggest presentation problem

Updated: May 11, 2022

Does presenting to your peers make you nervous?

Imagine presenting to 500 of them. Who have got beers in their hands, standing in the Oxford Arts Factory in Sydney. You're on stage and you have 5 minutes - 300 seconds! - to present, "How to Predict the Future".

There's more. You have 20 charts, and the screen changes automatically every 15 seconds to the next chart.

That's the format of Ignite Sydney which I've been lucky enough to be invited to present there twice. It's an amazing learning experience for someone who wants to get good at presenting...

(You can see the talk here.)

I loved it (in hindsight more so!). But it also made me realize I had a problem with my presenting skills.

Not so much the nerves.

Not the content, nor the delivery - they were passable (at least in my opinion).

The real problem was the inordinate amount of time it took me to create those 300 seconds. The 5 minutes of content - 20 slides - had taken me more than 20 hours to write and practice. And that was a significant issue because I get paid for my time. I can't afford to spend that amount of time writing presentations. And nor did I enjoy the endless tweaking and rewrites.

Planning presentations quickly

Ever since then I've been looking for ways to create content quicker, and get it right first time. It's been a surprisingly hard journey. I tried lots of other people's tips and tricks, but nothing seemed to make a significant impact. But then, just in the last 6 months, I put three ideas together and developed a system for planning presentations quickly that I swear by now.

The first part of the recipe: the jigsaw technique

I learned the jigsaw presentation planning technique from a company called Glass Tap. The principle is that you should always start writing a presentation with pen, paper and post it notes. Add everything you want to say on to post its, and then group them into themes and move them round to build a presentation flow. Just like starting with jigsaw pieces and making into a cohesive picture. On its own, it didn't work perfectly for me though. It lacked structure, and was messy. So, I combined it with a second approach...

The second part of the recipe: the architect technique

An old boss of mine had got me into using what I call the architect technique. Here, you write the desired outcome on the bottom of a piece of paper, then work backwards to decide the content required to get that outcome. It's called the architect technique as it encourages you to have a solid framework, including typically 3 key content pillars. Again, I got some value out of this, but it didn't really shift the dial as you can end up bloating out each o the content pillars with more stuff, and the 3 pillars can be disconnected.

The final part of the recipe....

...was a surprise to me. Through our work on productivity, we'd got to know Microsoft OneNote as a system for organising notes and to-dos. In fact, we found it didn't do that job particularly well, but we had got to know it a little. There is one thing it's awesome at though. And that's being a jotting pad where you can write notes and move them round. You can't do this anywhere near as well on PowerPoint (you are restricted by page size, and clunky text boxes), Word (don't even bother trying) or Evernote (just good for lists). So, OneNote has become my "killer app" for planning presentations quickly. I can jot notes down, develop sections, move them around - and it works just like a real world jotting pad with post its on.

Note: if you have any Microsoft software, the chances are very high that OneNote is already on your computer. These days it comes as a free bit of software or bundled with other Office products. It's probably just hidden on your start menu somewhere.

Putting it all together

Planning presentations quickly using OneNote - an example of my plan for a keynote on negotiations

Adding these 3 ideas together has significantly changed the speed at which I can write great content for presentations, courses, keynotes and more.

First, I analyze the audience, taking some notes about who they are, and what they currently think/feel/do.

Next, I write a note containing the desired outcome: how do I want to change the way they think/feel/do?

Then, I develop the content ideas to bridge that gap. I normally include an intro, featuring a story to start on a personal note. Then into my main content areas.

Along the way, I can capture any random thoughts, sources, links etc in another note.

I can colour code the notes and shift them around, and then I can add timing estimates.

Only then do I open up PowerPoint and start writing charts and sourcing images to go with them. And it's amazing how quickly you can write a presentation when you already know exactly what you want to say.

The impact

For me, this has made a huge impact - the addition of OneNote has been the kicker that made all the other ideas work. I really enjoy the planning phase now, whereas I used to find it teetered between enjoyment and frustration - especially when I found myself rewriting, or even binning, a whole section of charts. These days I have far fewer re-writes. And I'm clear on the narrative flow of my charts.

I share this to help you avoid the trials and tribulations I had trying to find a good way of planning presentations quickly. Maybe you can use the time you get back to sign up to do an Ignite Sydney talk? Or just spend it doing something you love even more than presenting!

Written by Rob Pyne


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