Planning your presentation on screen sounds efficient, but it can often lead you in unhelpful directions. When it comes to story design, there’s still no substitute for good old pen, paper and Post-Its…
Designers of all stripes agree that the best design begins well away from the screen. However contemporary and visually beautiful your final presentation, the work is always better for having begun in a simpler mode, with just paper, pens, Post-Its and a wall. I recommend this approach for planning even the shortest presentation, because it’s the best way of visually building up your story and balancing the interplay of all its different elements.
Why is this? For one thing, what happens when you open PowerPoint or any other presentation software is that it makes you start focusing immediately on the design and graphic elements of the deck – the look and feel, colours and branding, font sizes, imagery, transitions and so on – at a point when you don’t even know what your basic story shape is yet.
Another problem with PowerPoint is that it tends to force your thinking into the straitjacket of previous templates, both visual and conceptual. You might find a deck you did recently that’s a bit similar, and before you know it you’re over-writing that one for a whole new talk. Doing that, you start to lose sight of the challenge that’s in front of you now, and you waste time and energy trying to shoehorn a new story into the shape of an old one.
So start basic. Grab some pencils, coloured pens, a pad, Post-Its that actually stick – A5 ones, ideally – and a spare bit of wall. Now you are free to just go with the flow of your thoughts. Think stuff, draw stuff, get things down on paper. Sketch images, draft headlines. Scribble furiously, draw badly, it doesn’t matter. Some bits of paper you’ll want to screw up and bin straight away, other bits you’ll want to stick on the wall.
When we’re planning, thoughts and ideas come thick and fast to us at different levels, with no respect to structural hierarchy. An idea for a whole section might be followed by an idea for a headline, a concluding point, an image style, an interesting aside, a killer slide, an improvement on an earlier idea, an engaging line to kick off your talk. Working analogue, all these thoughts can be easily captured and integrated.
You might just start with the one overarching message you want to get across on the day. That may lead you to a killer image. Or if it may lead to a thought about how to section your argument. Now you might then want to drill down into the detail of one strand, or you might want to think about a series of linked images that punctuate the movement of your story. Just go where your thoughts leads you; it’s all good.
The analogue approach allows you to be utterly free and ruthless with your planning. You can rip out the start, or turn it into your end. You can stick 5 Post-Its on top of each other. You can think like a movie editor, moving a strong section back so it packs a bigger punch (then adding a teaser earlier to build the suspense). You can stick orphan thoughts and random ideas onto another bit of wall, where they can wait to be slotted in.
And in doing all this you (and your brain) are active and not static. You’re moving around and looking all about, making physical movements that start to map to the shape of the story you want. You are physically watching the contours of your thoughts and ideas coalesce into structure and story, often in ways that may surprise you. When I work with someone on a presentation, the order will change radically from what they’d envisaged almost every time. Often the end becomes the beginning, or vice versa.
You’ll also be getting a strong sense of the balance of your content – do you have too much material? Or too much in one area and not enough in another? You start to get a sense of where you need to trim back and where you need to amplify.
As you pepper that blank wall with sticky bits of paper, you’ll start to see the true shape and flavour of your story emerging. And once that’s in place, everything else flows from there…