profile

Death by Screens: the newsletter

Planning a presentation? Outline horizontally

Published 8 months ago • 2 min read

There's no one perfect way to create a presentation, or indeed, any kind of content-based work. But there are approaches we can borrow from other disciplines. In the world of fiction writing, there's the idea of 'planners' or 'pantsers' (as in, flying by the seat of your pants). Planners meticulously plan the structure of their work in an outline before they start writing (Will Self is one example); pantsers are those who just go for it and write (George RR Martin).

Both approaches have their merits. George RR Martin talks about the process of discovering what will happen to the characters as he's writing. When a key character dies (Game of Thrones spoilers removed here!), it's as much a surprise to him when he writes it, as it is to anyone reading it later.

I know plenty of designers who take this approach to preparing a presentation, particularly when you're short on time. Going straight to your favourite presentation tool seems like the most efficient route to getting something out. Hell, the designs are already there in Figma, why not just go for it?

Be a planner, not a pantser

As we're not usually creating a presentation to discover what we want to communicate from scratch (like George RR Martin does), it's better to be a planner, at least until you've got some more experience under your belt. We do love our sticky notes - we're natural planners. (Side note: discovering what you want to say is covered in Death by Screens in the chapter on writing).

Planning your outline is a counter-intuitive efficiency hack: it feels slower to get started, but saves you time later. Good content creation is almost always the result of judicious editing, so if you outline first, you can edit and revise before you commit to any content creation that might get cut later.

The most important reason you should outline first is because you can shape your story for an audience. And how you do that is of subtle importance.

Horizontally. This is the way.

Most people outline in bullets, using a document or an outline tool, which gives you a vertical orientation (hello Notion users...). Nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but it prevents you from seeing the experience your presentation creates for the audience.

Instead, outline horizontally using sticky notes or a virtual whiteboard, as below. This format will allow you to see the shape of your story, where the highlights are, and where you might get bogged down in details. If you notice places where your audience’s attention might slump, you can revise your presentation; you can be a lot more honest with yourself about what's boring. Less boring stuff = fewer deaths by screens.

Like so many design methods, I didn't start conciously doing this horizontally; I just noticed one day that it provided me with a much better idea of how engaging the sections of the presentation were going to be. I became a slightly better editor of my own work, enough to start doing it every time I plan content. Try it out next time you're planning a presentation!

NOTE: In Death by Screens there's a template structure to customise for your own presentation; get the book and you don't need to plan from scratch anyway.

NOTE: This is similar to creating an experience map, which is no accident. To effectively communicate and persuade, we must craft the presentation experience for stakeholders just like we would for users.


In summary: outline your presentations first; and do it horizontally, so that you see the ups and downs of your presentation structure.

The book has more tips on shaping a story, and of course, an example structure and associated content.

Tell great stories about your design work.

Death by Screens: available now in paperback or ebook

Death by Screens: the newsletter

by Ben Sauer

My book "Death by Screens: how to present high-stakes digital design work and live to tell the tale" - is here to help designers tell better stories about their work. Get three winning presentation tips from the book by signing up below!

Read more from Death by Screens: the newsletter
A man tightropes between towers of money and cake.

The secret ambitions of Phillipe Petit...? The Amazon Effect Ever heard of ‘The Amazon Effect’ in usability testing? Picture this: you’re testing an e-commerce website for a client. But right when the participants you’re observing are about to buy something, they open Amazon in a new tab. When asked why, they say: well I always check prices against Amazon before buying.” I’m not here to tell you about The Amazon Effect, but how one might use the story of The Amazon Effect. What if...

2 months ago • 2 min read
Goldilocks stares at the planets

Big in Japan In Japan, the way people read is fundamentally different to how we read in the west, and it's not just the vertical orientation of the lines. You can see sense how reading is different in the design of newspapers. INFORMATION OVERLOAD! (for westerners) The writing systems used in East Asia have turned people into expert information scanners; they can digest very dense information very quickly. If you give a presentation in Japan, it's quite common (and expected) to put...

4 months ago • 1 min read
Jane Austin

Jane Austin is one of the most inspiring product design people I've ever met. She's a sharp product thinker and builds happy, productive design teams (great interview about her journey here). Jane and I helped to build a hundred strong design team together. She asked me recently why I wrote my new book, Death by Screens: how to present high stakes digital design work and live to tell the tale. Here's an edited version of that conversation. The idea for the book What was the trigger for...

7 months ago • 17 min read
Share this post