Let’s see if this sounds familiar… you realise you’ve got to make a presentation/write a report (or your boss tells you that you do) and you immediately reach for your laptop. You boot up and turn on the software and begin to write.
Doing the Paper Work
If it does sound familiar- even remotely – know that you’re not alone: that’s what the vast majority of people do. Sadly, it’s not the best way to do things. It’s not even close. Professionals (until they’re fabulously experienced) use a more subtle process, and so should you. We’ll break it down into steps here.
- Step one – decide what you’re trying to achieve. You should know that from the previous module. It’s about what you’re trying to change – and if you’ve been honest with yourself in the first module it should come along without too much thought or effort.
- Step two – figure out what it is you need to say/do/etc for that to happen.
- Step three – decide what the best medium/method is to do that.
If the answer to Step three is a slide deck such as PowerPoint then use that. But if it’s a report do that instead. If it’s software, how about a live demo of it, not a presentation about it?
If it’s something with lots of technical data, how about a briefing paper? If the best answer is performing elephants then look very carefully at your budget and see if you can afford performing elephants. (You might also want to consider the ethical questions, too.)
A personal example might help.
Let’s assume, for now, that you’ve decided you really do need to use slides or a formal, written report. How do you decide what to put in and in what order?
Why? Because working on paper requires no technical effort to speak of. No matter how competent and confident you are with a computer, at least part of your brain must be dedicated to working it. That means you’ve got less space in your head for concentrating on the content.
Here’s a technique we use (which is less fussy than it looks):
- start off with the exercises from the previous module about what we’re trying to do – and we write that down (big) somewhere prominent
- brain dump everything we can think of which is relevant to that topic but dump them one thought at a time onto index cards
- take a break – you want a clear head for the next stage: if something else occurs to you during your break don’t make a big deal of it, just pop in on another index card and go back to your break
- go back to the index cards and clean them – remove obvious duplicates and things which are obviously less important
- start to shuffle the index cards around, and around, and around, continually searching for the ideal order
- when you’ve got something you feel is reasonable stop
- take another break – you want a clear head for the next stage
- subject each and every single card to the Hot Air Balloon test (see below)
- repeat the last few steps until you can’t change anything. You’re finished only when you find yourself changing things for the sake of it.
This isn’t an absolutely fail-safe process, but it’s a very good start. You need, obviously, to provide some common sense to things as well but you’ll be surprised by how effective it is to have this process as a structure.
By the way, we use this technique ourselves. It has an added advantage of meaning that more than one person can work on the design of a presentation at once – do do this, we often stick the cards up on a wall so we can all see them.
You can see the technique being used here:
we’ve shuffled dozens of cards around until we’ve got the best structure – four sections (arranged in columns here), each with between two and six content-cards (the top cards in each column are cards we’ve added to split up the different sections).
These newly-added cards will become delimiters which clearly differentiate the different sections in the same way a chapter heading breaks up a book. In a presentation they might be a black slide followed by a title of the new section of the presentation. In a report they’d be a chapter title.
Follow up with the Balloon test!
What is the Hot Air Balloon Test? Good question.
Imagine you’re in a hot air balloon and enjoying the scenery: everything is fantastic and it’s a beautiful day.
Beautiful, that is, until the balloons pilot tells that there’s a leak and if you land where you are you’ll land in dangerous crocodile-infested swamps with very little chance of surviving.
He asks if you’ve got anything you can throw overboard to reduce the weight. For some reason you’re carrying your index cards – and because you were anxious not to lose anything – your notes are written on tablets of stone, so each one ways about 5Kg.
You can guess the rest of the exercises. What cards would you throw overboard?
But in round two the hole in the balloon has got bigger! Instead of looking at your cards and deciding which to throw, you’re looking at them and deciding which to keep. Things are so desperate that your default is to throw things away: each and every card has to justify its existence!
It might not seem like this technique is worthwhile – it seems too simple to be true, right? And in most of life I’d agree. If something seems too good to be true it generally is…
…but on this occasion that can lead you to think it’s not worth your time doing this stuff. It’s a technique we use ourselves, so we stand by it – but it is deceptively simple. Remember, just because something’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy! 😉