How to Write a Presentation

An ad man named James Webb Young published a book in 1939 called A Technique for Producing Ideas.  The book contained Webb’s belief system that the creative process requires 5 essential steps for success.  Webb did not believe that people were born creative.  He maintained that it was a learned skill and that the skill required a process.  While the book was written to help copywriters develop ads, I believe the 5 steps are just as valuable in helping people write a presentation, or a speech, or a big new business development pitch.

For some people this process will have two major drawbacks.  It requires time and effort.  The effort to gather information. The time to thoroughly digest it.  The time to walk away from it and think about other things then look at it again fresh.  Patience to wait for the right answer to arrive. And finally, discipline to weave what you learned, what you intuited and what you developed into a comprehensive narrative.

Here are the five steps, modified for presentation development:

#1 -Gather raw material. The real trick here is to just gather and stop yourself from writing the presentation as you go.  Don’t take a few tidbits that you found and think you have the whole answer.  When most people have an assignment to write a presentation they immediately start thinking about how to open the presentation, what great theatrical devices to might use, how to close with a flourish.  These are all good thoughts, but frankly, if you are having them at this stage you are suffering from premature congratulations.  You need to do the raw work of assembling everything on the subject matter, organizing it in a readable form and avoiding with all of your power writing the actual presentation.

#2 -Digest the material. Think about the implications of everything you have uncovered.  Think about how one factoid sits next to another. Turn things over in your mind until the raw material starts to form a mini-story.  That is to say, wait until the raw material starts to make sense as an ensemble.

#3 -Unconscious processing. This step requires generous cups of time.  It should not be rushed.  No writing yet!  You’re just letting all of the raw data, perhaps newly organized so that it makes sense, live together and get to know each other.  This is the perfect time for distractions. Movies, books, watch the next episode of House of Cards. Sleep on it.  Literally, sleep on it.  This might also be a good time to chat about the idea in a relaxed way with someone you trust, someone who will not try to help you mold it, but who will ask lots of questions to understand the raw data that you have tucked under your pillow.

#4 -The aha moment. This is not something you can schedule.  You have lived with the raw data, turned it around and looked at it from lots of sides, put it away for a few days, perhaps chatted about it with a close friend, but you can’t quite get your hands on it.  Then it happens.  You’ll be cutting onions to sauté for dinner. Or you’ll hear something seemingly unrelated on the radio and all of a sudden everything makes sense. Aha. Got it.

#5 Now, make it a presentation. We sometimes think that if the idea is so obvious we don’t need much work to convey it, but that is rarely the case.  You have developed the big idea you want to communicate. For purposes of the presentation, reduce that idea to the takeaway you want the audience to get from it. Convert the takeaway into a benefit for the audience.  Now, write your opening.  How will you convey this idea? Through a story? Or a reveal of information never seen before?

If you are making this presentation using PowerPoint, develop the presentation on paper first.  You’ll probably find that you are rich with background and content, and the PowerPoint template will silo information.  It’s much better to use a free form style on a large sheet of paper and weave the content together before you commit it to PowerPoint.

The ending should echo the opening.  Good endings not only echo but have some call to action that you want the audience to take.

There you go. Five steps, probably 3 or 4 days of process to get to what you want. And, you’ll have a presentation that rocks.  You’ll also have a presentation that you now know intimately.  Having that kind of knowledge of the subject matter can only make you a more confident speaker.  That point alone makes it worthwhile in my book.


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