Planning a presentation? Outline horizontally

published3 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

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