How to Make a Presentation (part 1)

Over the years I've made quite a lot of presentations. The ratings of my last presentations at conferences have been quite favorable, and people regularly ask permission to steal some of my slides. So it seems I'm doing at least something right. And that's why I'd like to share my process with you…

Step 1: collect topics

No matter how I decide about my topics (I usually take them from my blog and my book,) I start by collecting them on sticky notes. Each sticky note is a topic, and I put them all on the outside of my bathroom wall. (Why there, you may wonder? Well, because they tend not to stick on the inside.)

At this time I don't worry about individual slides. One topic may need five slides later, other topics may need to be combined. I don't care. I only think about topics and how they relate to one another.

Note that "topics" here means anything I want to tell the audience. Including all kinds of simple things, examples, statistics, etc. That's why I end up with a lot of sticky notes here.

Step 2: create structure

When I'm happy about the topics, I create a structure by clearly defining sections (which will be turned into the agenda later) and the logical flow of the topics within a section (are they in a natural order?).

I clearly indicate sections (and sub-sections) with a different color of sticky notes.

This is the perfect moment to remove topics (when they don't fit well in the flow of the presentation,) or to add extra topics (to smooth transitions between other topics) where this is needed.

Step 3: make story

Then it is time to decide what the conclusion is of the presentation (so that everything in the presentation supports that conclusion.) Basically I ask myself two important questions:

  • What is my point?
  • Why should people care?

If I cannot answer these questions clearly I will know my presentation is flawed. Asking myself these questions usually results in me making some more changes, until I'm happy about the message that I want to get across.

I also take time to fashion metaphors, and to think about a nice introduction. I ask myself: what stories am I going to tell the audience to introduce the topics, and to keep people engaged throughout the presentation?

For example: in my last presentation (Big-Ass View on Competence) I used traffic management as a metaphor, and I came up with stories about car driving, bicycles, roundabouts, traffic police, and even witches on brooms.

go to part 2 – go to part 3

p.s. While you're waiting for the next installment of this little series, please order the book Presentation Zen, by Garr Reynolds. It's plain awesome. 

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  • Paul Boos

    Nice! Looking forward to what Pt 2 will look like 😉
    BTW, Have you used Prezi? I am thinking one technique that may add value to moving to less linear presentation style to what you describe above is taping a piece of string between related topics (or clustering related topics) and then posting a sticky on the string (or in the cluster) describing the relationship. This would be something you also would want to bring out in the presentation as well I would think.
    I’m also a big believer in Edward Tufte’s concept of trying to state as much in a format that can answer most question as possible; if I leave a presentation behind, it should be enough information to leave a distinct memory on the attendee that they don’t need to come back to me, unless they need something I didn’t cover.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    I haven’t used Prezi yet.
    Though I have seen some _abuse_ of Prezi. 🙂
    See here:
    But I’m sure Prezi could be used for positive effects as well.

  • John Farrar

    You collect details and fill before you know why you are doing a presentation? Knowing why seems like stage one IMO. 🙂 The same steps in a different order.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Of course, I start with a general idea of what I want to tell people. But after collecting and organizing the topics I notice that this message can change or shift. That’s why I think it’s important to (re)define the core message _after_ I have all sticky notes in front of me. And then I can still remove/add some.

  • Eusebiu Blindu

    This is definitely a good tip not only for presentations but for blog posts and Youtube videos

  • Sascha Binger

    Hi Jurgen,
    thanks for this posting. Sometimes I think I have to use sticky notes much more than I already do :-).
    I want to advise an additional book, called “Confessions of a Public Speaker” from Scott Berkun. It helped me to get a better understanding, why some things happen and (if possible) how to avoid them.
    My opinion:
    presentation capabilities over good looking slides
    content over presentation capabilities
    (That is, while there ist value in the items on the right,….)
    If more people took as much care of their topics as you do, we would see more well-craftet presentations :-).

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Thanks. Yes, I read Scott Berkun’s book. I really liked it.

  • André Faria Gomes

    Congrats. Nice tips. I really like the way you structure the ideas. I’m gonna try it right away.

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