Presentation Planning: Be Ready For Detours


Many speakers, whether they realize it or not, plan their presentations like a lawyer’s argument. They start by laying out the background, set out the evidence that supports their position, summarize it for their audience, and suggest remedies and next steps. Building presentations this way makes can be very effective, especially when you have lots of information to deal with or you need to overcome strong objections. It’s an approach that feels logical and familiar to both speakers and to audiences raised on courtroom dramas and CSI procedurals.

Unfortunately, like so many good ideas, this one doesn’t always work out as planned. If you withhold too much from your audience for too long they may feel confused, then resentful, about being there at all. Presentations should not be mysteries, I like to remind people. You’re not Agatha Christie. Get to the point before you lose them.

And sometimes you build a long, beautiful, air-tight argument only to find that no one wants to hear it. I know I’m not the only one who has prepared for an hour-long presentation only to have the executive I’m meeting with announce that they now have only 30 minutes for me. Or 15. Or 5. Sometimes their schedule has changed. Sometimes they’re just the kind of person who always wants the bottom line. Sometimes they’re just rude. It’s hard to plan for the rude people–they’re just too unpredictable. But spending a little time learning about your audience in advance can be a great investment if they turn out to be bottom-liners. Walking into a meeting and being able to say “I know we’re scheduled for an hour, but I’m only going to take 15 minutes of your time today,” can make a great impression.

And if you are a lawyer and you’re giving a presentation as momentous as appearing in front of the Supreme Court, it’s important that you’re so well prepared that you can recover when they cut off your carefully constructed argument and ask you to take a completely different direction.

That’s what happened to both sides at this week’s hearings on California’s Proposition 8. (You can read or listen to them here.) As Paul Clement and Ted Olson each started laying out their arguments, Chief Justice John Roberts cut them off. He didn’t want to hear the background of the case; instead he wanted both sides to address whether the plaintiffs even had standing to appeal. Luckily, both of these lawyers had the skills to recover. Ted Olson was even able to get a good laugh out of it. When Roberts interrupted by saying, “Mr. Olson, I cut off your friend before he could get into the merits,” Olson quipped, “I was trying to avoid that, Your Honor.”

A sense of humor is a good tool in a potentially frustrating situation like this. Flexibility is even better.

Proposition 8 Supreme Court Arguments

The Problem With PowerPoint: The Gettysburg Address Slides

I’ve been using the Gettysburg Address PowerPoint in my presentation training since the very first class I taught. Because the speech is so well known (partly because it’s so brief), these slides by Peter Norvig provide a great example of how PowerPoint can drain the life from even the most powerful and important ideas. Reducing the speech to bullet points is so ridiculous and at the same time so familiar that it never fails to provoke uneasy laughter from an audience. They’ve all seen–and usually given–presentations just like this.

At this point these slides are almost 15 years old and Norvig is now the head of research at Google. But it’s just as good of a lesson about the over-reliance on PowerPoint as it was way back in the 20th century. If anything, it’s become an even better example as the dated PowerPoint design looks more and more ridiculous. You can almost imagine Lincoln agonizing over whether to use this template or my old favorite, “Dad’s Tie.”

But I hadn’t heard the story of why Norvig created the presentation until I came across this video on YouTube. It turns out that he put it together in 1998 while working on a team at NASA investigating the failure of two Mars probes. He felt like PowerPoint was allowing participants on the project to distance themselves from the real issues they should be concerned with and that they’d be more productive if they just sat down and had a discussion instead of creating slides. So he built some slides of his own to show how PowerPoint could obscure or even hide what was really at stake.

I particularly love the part of the video where he describes being concerned that he’d have to spend a lot of time finding the worst possible combination of colors and fonts for his slides and discovering that the PowerPoint wizard solved that problem for him with no effort at all.

If you’re reading this in email format, you can view the slides and video on my blog or here:

Gettysburg Address PowerPoint

Peter Norvig Video

Presentation Tips: Do Something Unexpected

Do you remember anything the speakers said at your high school graduation? Or even who the speakers were?

I don’t. As a matter of fact, I can’t tell you anything about any of the many graduation ceremonies I’ve been to over the years except for the fact that I was overheated and anxious about getting sunburned at a lot of them.

Chances are you’d remember if the speaker told you and all of your classmates “None of you is special. You are not special. None of you is exceptional,” as Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough did in his speech. Of course his point wasn’t to dishearten these poor kids, but to remind them of the virtues of selflessness. And they’re much more likely to remember his advice than they would have been if he had just given the standard uplifting talk meant to inspire young people.

You can read more about his speech here.

Let’s face it, your presentations and meetings are probably much, much, less memorable than the average commencement speech. One of the best ways to change this and make an impact on your audience is to do something unexpected–like tell them they aren’t as special as they think they are. Next time you have an important presentation to give, think about what you can do to surprise them or challenge their assumptions. It’s a riskier strategy than having another boring, forgettable meeting, but the payoff can be huge.

Clear Communication Is Your Responsibility

It’s often tempting to blame the audience when they don’t “get it.” Anyone who has ever tried to train the same people over and over again on the same topic will understand the feeling. But, despite Dilbert’s opinion, it’s always your job as the presenter to make sure that your material is appropriately targeted at your audience and that they are able to follow along with you. If they can’t, you’re not working hard enough to communicate clearly. Of course there’s no guarantee that they’ll agree with you, but you need to make sure that they at least understand you.

Steps in writing presentations: Deciding on your main idea and researching your material

Deciding on your main idea

Once you come up with a lot of ideas by brainstorming, themes often start to become clear pretty quickly. Using Post-Its, software, or scissors and tape, you can move them around and group them in order to see what really stands out in order to find your objective. If you find that you have several big ideas, you’ll have to decide if you can discuss them all or if you’re going to need to edit them down in order to provide your audience with a focused talk. At this point you can start trying to solidify your objective. Try to come up with one sentence that describes what you want to accomplish with your presentation. If you can’t do that yet you may still need to work on defining your “big idea.”

Researching your material

Once you’ve targeted a main idea you can take a closer look to see if you have enough material to support it. Maybe all you need is data that you already have filed away somewhere, or maybe you need to go on the internet or –God forbid– to the library, in order to support your ideas. During the research stage you may find a lot of new raw material to throw in with what you generated during your brainstorming sessions and you’ll eventually have to figure out where it all fits, if it fits at all.

Hopefully you find evidence that support your ideas, but you might find yourself changing your mind about your original plan. There’s no shame in this– in fact it’s the sign of a really thoughtful presenter that they are flexible enough to change directions when necessary.

A brainstorming example

Brainstorming is messy, but effective at generating ideas

There are all kinds of different brainstorming processes you might use. This is mine; I love scribbling all over a whiteboard in color-coded pens. In this example you can see the work that some friends and I did to start one of our first seminars on presentation skills, so it’s a bit of a historical document at this point. One of the few things I miss about my old job is that giant whiteboard.

It’s not easy to see the details here because of the poor skills of the photographer (me again) and because of the fact that the whiteboard was basically the same size as the room, which meant getting a good picture wasn’t easy. But you can get a sense of how chaotic a good brainstorming session can be.

Here you can see broad categories (Organizing, Designing, Delivery) followed by main topics. There are other ideas that were subsequently crammed into the margins, arrows that indicate where some subjects might be moved, and suggestions for audience interactions and other activities during the talk.

In the broad sense, it’s a pretty good outline of the presentation we ultimately developed. But there’s a lot in here that we didn’t use, too, especially the stuff like filming video of sample presentations that was more ambitious than what we could accomplish with our resources. Some of what got left out were actually good ideas, they just weren’t practical or didn’t quite fit the rest of the plan.

And that’s the way that brainstorming should work, by allowing you to generate ideas and record them without making you feel committed to them. They you can cut the not-so-good ideas, the topics you don’t have time for, the pieces that don’t help you achieve your goals, in the editing and scripting stages.

Steps in writing presentations: Getting a topic and brainstorming ideas

The initial step in creating a presentation is often the quickest –someone just tells you that you’re going to be giving a presentations. If only the rest were that easy.

You get a topic

Every presentation gets its start somewhere, and this is usually the way they begin. You’re assigned one by your boss. You volunteer to do some training. You rent out a ballroom so you can give a lecture on the history of the Smurfs. Your final result may look very different from the original concept but, however you got your topic, you’re going to have to make it work somehow.


The idea of brainstorming may take you back to the days of elementary school, but that doesn’t make it childish. It’s a very helpful tool in allowing you to explore many ideas before you settle on any one thing for your presentation. And in keeping with the old-school methodology, we suggest that you use primitive tools for your brainstorming. A whiteboard and dry-erase markers work great if you have them available.

I’ve long been partial to yellow legal notepads (even before I worked in legal) because of the extra room they give you for scribbling thoughts, and lots of people rely on Post-It notes stuck on their walls for writing down and rearranging their ideas. There are also brainstorming and mind-mapping software tools out there, but sometimes a pen and paper are the best weapons.

The important thing is to write down as many ideas as possible so you have lots of possible avenues to explore and material to mine. What are your themes and how might you address them? How will you interact with the audience? What stories might you tell? What can you use as evidence? If you’ve ever done a brainstorming exercise, you already know that the goal here is to generate as many ideas as possible without making critical decisions about them.

Planning Your Presentations: Message, Audience and You

Unfortunately there are no quick shortcuts, no “one weird tip”, that can make you a great presenter. Developing the ability to communicate your ideas effectively is just too complicated for there to be an easy fix.

But whatever kinds of presentations you do– and we’re all presenters these days– keeping a few big ideas in mind while you’re planning your talk can go a long way toward helping you achieve your goals. Making sure that you’ve clearly defined your Message, that you’ve taken the needs of your Audience into account and that You act as a good representative for your argument will make your presentations much more effective, whether you’re giving a keynote speech to a ballroom full of people or just hoping to charm your favorite barista into upgrading your latte.

Here I’m using that perennial junior high geometry favorite, the Venn diagram, to represent the way these three critical issues should overlap in your presentations, though you could also think of trying to manage them as juggling or as a balancing act. The main thing is that you need to engage all of them simultaneously.

If you can remember back as far as the seventh grade, the concept represented by the Venn diagram above is that you want to hit the sweet spot where all three concepts intersect; this is the point where you have the best chance of persuading your audience and achieving your objectives. Neglect one or more of these elements in your talk, on the other hand, and you risk losing your audience’s attention or making them start to wonder why they’re listening to you at all.

So take the time to figure out the relationship between all three elements of any presentation. Here are some questions about each that can help you make a good start.


This may seem like an obvious question, but what do you hope to accomplish with your presentation? Far too many talks happen for no other reason than that they’ve been scheduled. You don’t want your presentation to be one of those because there are few things that audiences resent more than having their time wasted; don’t leave them trying to figure out what you want. Try writing the objective of your presentation in one sentence and keep referring back to it to make sure that you’re still on track. If you can’t come up with a clear objective, think about whether you should really be having a presentation at all.


It’s impossible to completely separate your audience for your message, and you should really never try to. You need to ask yourself who they are, what they already know, and how you want to persuade them every time you set out to develop what you’re going to say. Every audience is different and every audience will feel differently about you– so you need to plan accordingly. How will you target your message specifically for them? What challenges are they likely to pose?


The first question you always need to ask yourself before taking on any presentation assignment is whether you’re the right person to give this specific talk. Are you qualified? Will the audience see you as authoritative? What preexisting feelings do they have about you? Sometimes you just have to say no or recruit someone else to help when you’re asked to give a presentation that isn’t well suited for you. If you do decide to move ahead you need to ask yourself how you will present yourself and “perform” for this audience. What’s the right tone?  What should you wear?  How will you interact with these people?  What can you do to make this presentation as successful as possible?

You’ll never be guaranteed that a presentation will be successful; I’ve had talks interrupted by building evacuations and disrupted by feuding audience members. But planning your presentation around your Message, your Audience and You will help make you a much more effective speaker.