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see the work that some friends and I did to start one of our first seminars on presentation skills, so it’s a bit of a historical document at this point.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.