Updated on 07.15.11

Gathering Your Thoughts

Trent Hamm

In the near future, I have to give a pair of presentations on similar topics, mostly related to online writing, mostly focused on methods for earning money at it and building an audience. As with any presentation that I give, I want this to be an excellent presentation, and I’m willing to put in the time and effort to make it so.

Given that, I thought it might be worthwhile to walk through the steps that I use to develop a presentation. No, this isn’t going to be some kind of PowerPoint tutorial. Instead, my focus is simply on gathering your thoughts and turning them into something cohesive and presentable.

Step 1: Brainstorming
The first step is to simply get all of the disjointed ideas you have about the presentation out of your head.

Use index cards For each discrete idea you have, put it on its own card. I give each card a number identifier, which I write in the lower right corner and circle. So, I might write something like “Audience is THE key” and write 1 in the lower right corner and circle it. If I have an idea of how to group earlier ideas together, I note numbers of those ideas on the new card so I can match them up later on. If an idea is complex at all, break it down and spread the pieces across multiple cards.

List everything without worrying about repeats Just write them down as they come to you. Don’t worry about repeating the same idea or even stating the same idea again in different words. If it’s in your head, dump it out and move on to the next idea. I often go through a package of index cards when doing this, and sometimes even two or three packages.

The key here is to just get it all out of your head and onto a format where you can shuffle things around to your heart’s desire.

Step 2: Grouping
Once you are sure that your mind is devoid of ideas (which I usually am after three or four brainstorming sessions), it’s time to start doing some very basic organizing of the ideas.

Use groups that make sense to you Start grouping the cards together into groups that make sense to you. I usually use stacks of cards attached together with paper clips, with the “biggest” idea in the stack on top so I know what that stack represents. Often, that kind of “biggest” idea is one where I wrote a single word or two and followed it with a bunch of numbers representing other index cards, so those index cards will go into that stack.

Allow small groups to entirely be part of larger groups if needed Sometimes, I find that a small group goes within a large group. That’s completely fine! I’ll just put the small group (paperclipped together still) within the larger group and keep moving.

Step 3: Reducing
Once you have everything grouped, you need to start reducing the size of the groups.

Delete redundant or repeated ideas You’ll find a lot of these. Go through each of your groupings and toss every duplicate that you can. If two ideas are similar, toss one of them. If an idea turns out to be redundant, meaning the point doesn’t matter much at all in a crowd with the other points, toss it. If a card has two ideas on it that are represented on two other cards, toss the card with two ideas on it. What you want are cards with unique ideas on them that are in sensible groups together.

Reduce each idea to the minimum number of words Once that’s done, I start revising the cards. I try to state the core idea on the card in the least number of words possible while still making it comprehensible. Ideally, I can reduce it to one or two words. What about the details? The details are what you’re going to be talking about when presenting. The slides are just an outline and each slide is just a visual accessory.

At this point, the cards are basically your slides. Each card is a slide. Each grouping is a logical part of your talk. Likely, the groupings have some sort of coherent order or, at the very least, tie together in a way that you can explain in a few words on a single slide.

Step 4: Visualizing
Now comes the time to think visually.

Think of a single visual representation of the idea you’re stating What sort of image will really convey the idea you’re talking about to the crowd you’re speaking to? Try to imagine one image that would really knock your idea out of the park.

Note all of the visual ideas before looking for a single image Describe the image on each card, then search for the images you need. I often use Flickr’s Creative Commons libraries for images that I can freely use with attribution.

Step 5: Preparing
Most of these ideas should be very clear from the previous steps, but keep them in mind as you’re actually preparing for the event.

Use absolute minimal word count on each slide The fewer words per slide, the better. You want the audience listening to you, not trying to make out the 200 words on your slide.

Have one point per slide – no more, no less Do not overcrowd the audience with ideas all at once. Have one idea on your slide. Talk about that idea. Move on to the next slide and the next idea.

Having lots of slides you move quickly through is better than a few slides you drone on and on about The visual refreshment is much more likely to engage an audience over the length of your talk than a small number of slides held up there for a long time.

Practice. Edit. Practice some more. You know you’ve practiced enough when it feels natural to you. You can click through the slides and not even have to think about what’s on the screen. You can just keep eye contact on the crowd, focus on speaking slowly and making your points clear, and be confident knowing that those slides behind you are just accentuating you and the strength of your ideas.

Good luck.

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  1. krantcents says:

    Since I teach computer applications, I am glad you pointed out that you should minimize the number of words on each slide so the audience will listen to the speaker. This is something I emphasize to my students.

  2. con says:

    Where I work, everyone thinks a PowerPoint presentation should include the history of mankind. We try to stress just use bullet points and then discuss the points…don’t write everything down and then read them aloud. Boring.

  3. moom says:

    Yeah, the fewer words on the slides the better. The only time it is helpful to have a lot of words on the slides is when the presenter is not a native speaker and is hard to understand.

  4. Mark Gavagan says:

    A great resource for developing as a terrific speaker, even if you’re already a good speaker, is Toastmasters.

    I’ve been a member for 2+ years.

    Improvement doesn’t happen overnight, but progress is guaranteed with effort applied over time.

    Try out several clubs (unlimited free visits) in your area to find the right fit for you, because each one is a little different.

  5. Johanna says:

    “Audience is THE key” is spot on. The excellence of a presentation (or lack thereof) is determined by what the audience gets out of it (or doesn’t). The best presentation in the world for one audience could be totally wrong for another audience.

    Some questions to ask yourself about your audience are:

    How much do they already know about the subject you’re speaking about? (Are you in danger of pitching the talk at too high or too low a level? Are you using any jargon that’s going to be new to them?)

    What kind of talks are they used to listening to? (For example, if the audience is used to seeing Powerpoint visuals that convey substantive information, like diagrams of experiments or charts and graphs of data, they’re going to think your flickr creative commons decorations are stupid. Trust me on this.)

    Will they be taking notes? What will they want to write down. What do *you* want them to write down? (Whatever it is, be sure to give them ample time to do it before you flip to the next slide and start talking about something else.)

  6. kristine says:

    Let the audience know they can limit note-taking to specifics regarding each idea, as you will distribute a handout of the slide outline at the end of the talk. This way they will not spend their time looking down feverishly writing each slide. But never, ever, distribute the handout first, as they will read it instead of watching you, read ahead, and become bored waiting for you to catch up.

    Ditto Johanna on: know what they are used to seeing. For a group of prospective bloggers, this presentation sounds fine. For a group of investors, who want to to know the financial and traffic history of this site, pictures and key ideas would not be appropriate.

  7. Kim says:

    kristine- As a listener, I like to have a copy of the handout first so that I can take notes of each slide on the proper page. I also like to see what’s coming up next. It helps to keep me focused.

  8. Pearl says:

    I find your outline here very helpful–speaking as a teacher. I am in the process of revamping a class I have taught for 16 years and am, frankly, bored with. This process will help me refine and refocus my work. Thanks.

  9. slccom says:

    I prefer to have the handout to take notes on, too. Also, I always determine what my take-home message is early on, generally first. Making money blogging requires what? Determination? Sweat? Luck? Practice? All of the above? That is what I would be looking at as a listener.

    Johanna is right — you also need to analyze your audience early on. The rest of the post? Great advice for written presentations as well.

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