My 9 Step Process for Building a Presentation

“How do you build a presentation?” I’ve had the question asked of me a few times recently. And I’ve had enough flights recently to spend some time thinking about the answer. As I mentioned, before I could actually answer the question I had to write this other post about clarity and empathy. Go read that and then come back. With that as context, here is my stripped down process – my 9 essential steps to building a presentation.

1 – Find the nucleus

I start with a few pithy quotes or few, very few, key points. In the case of my “Killing IAM” talk, all I had was the phrase “Behold the comma.” For my more recent “No One Is An Island” what I had was “Hierarchies and our love for them is the strange love child of Confucius and the military industry complex” and “Treating people like just nodes just rows in a database is, essentially, sociopathic behavior. It ignores the reality that you, your organization, and the other person, group, or organization are connected.” What you need is just enough to grow a talk upon.

2 – Build an outline

Next up – I build an outline. The top-level items will become the sections of the talk. Under each top-level item I add just a few bullets, the essential points for that section. I’ll also add cues for visuals where I can. Sometimes I have a strong image in my mind how to illustrate a certain point, or there’ll be a joke I want to tell that requires a visual. Don’t stress over not having visual cues; they’re nice to have but by no means required to proceed to step 3.

3 – Write the speech

Yup. I write out my full talk. All of it. Write out the story that you want to tell. Hit each top-level item from the outline; make them headers. Weave the associated bullets into full sentences. Paragraphs grow from there. I will also put in parenthetical notes to myself for visuals, staging, and other things I want to remember when I present. I’ll also put in the quotes and ideas that served as my nucleus.

You might be surprised to learn but I don’t spend a ton of time of the actual writing. It takes me about an afternoon or so to write a speech. Your mileage may vary.

The text should flow. If it doesn’t, then you aren’t ready to write it. Go back to your nucleus and ask if it inspires you. Go back to your outline and look for weaknesses and holes.

As for length, I find that each page of single spaced text is about 3 to 4 minutes of talk. To get a sense for how long your text is, fire up text to speech. Time how long it takes the computer to read the text. This will give you a sense if you are in the right neighborhood lengthwise.

4 – Make a skeleton deck

Time to build the slide deck. Each major header from is a section of the deck. Paste each paragraph from the speech into the deck – one paragraph per slide. Put the nucleus quotes on separate slides. You also should rough-out the visuals where you can but do not spend a lot of time doing so. Once text of the speech is transposed into the skeleton deck you are done with this step.

5 – Get to v1

Here’s the hard labor intensive part. Take each paragraph and split it down to a sufficient number of slides. How’s that for a sufficiently vague instruction? “How many is a sufficient number?” you ask. I don’t know.

Here’s what I do. I am fairly militant about one thought per slide. This keeps me from getting lost and droning on on any one particular slide. More importantly, one-thought-per-slide keeps the audience focused. Even if they only can focus on the slide briefly; they stay focused.

It’s important to note that the mission is not to make a pretty deck at this point. You can refine images and visuals if you want, but do not get too hung up on it. Definitely do not spend too much time on animations, builds, and transitions. And be warned – you’ll want to because it is more fun working on animations than it is getting to a v1 deck. You have to fight that urge. To be clear, working on animations and builds is fine if it helps directly convey your point but again don’t spend too much time.

The mission of this step is to build a complete deck from a message and story perspective. Not a pretty deck. Not a polished deck. You want a complete story in slide form; a deck that tells the story of your speech.

6 – Perform v1

If step 5 was the hard step, then this step is the painful step. Time yourself presenting the deck out loud. There are few things worse than presenting your deck out loud for the first time. But it has to be done.

Why do this? You’ll get a sense for the flow (or lack thereof.) You’ll get a sense for the places that the talk bogs down and which slides need to be split up. You’ll feel where you are being cheeky or too cute. The things you think are funny will likely not be. The bits you think matter as much will tend to shine.

Again this step isn’t pleasant or enjoyable but it has to be done.

7 – Revise to v2 or so

With what you’ve learned from step 6, it’s time to make a pretty deck.
Find awesome images where you just have a cue for a visual. Refine your animations. I like to optimize those animations for flow. One big thing here is to reduce the number of clicker clicks needed to progress an animation.

Reduce the text on each slide to its most crucial bit. The slide is meant to trigger you to say something. That something is not exactly what you wrote in the speech, and that’s okay. That something you say will be right no matter what you say. How do I know that? Because you know the spirit of what you want to say. Don’t fixate on the letter of what you want to say.

Move the slides with the paragraphs of text into the speaker notes of the section headers. Move individual sentences into the speaker note for the appropriate slides.

This step takes me one or two revisions. So at this point I’m usually at a version 3 of the deck.

8 – Rehearse

No way around it – building a deck requires you to rehearse the deck. You should rehearse until you are able to see each slide in your head. Maybe not clearly and maybe not completely, but you should “see” the shape of each slide.

Focus on delivering your speech. Each phrase or thought from your speech is prompted by a slide.

Lastly, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD, DO NOT READ THE SPEAKER NOTES. Nothing will screw you up more than trying to read the speaker notes as you rehearse. Nothing. Do not do it. You’ve been warned.

To be clear, you will revise the deck as you go. Overly complex animations will get replaced with simpler ones. Dense slides will be simplified. You’ll probably break something along the way so don’t be afraid to save often and create new versions as you go. I usually will have 5 to 10 versions of a deck before I am done.

9 – Ship it!

How do I know when the presentation is done? Typically, when I get sick of looking at it. At that point I know it is time to ship the deck.

If you’ve followed these steps, your presentation is in a good place. You will be in a good place too. You’ll have the spirit of your speech in your mind and a bunch of rehearsals under your belt; that’s all you need.

When you deliver your presentation, you won’t be conscious. You will enter a state in which the deck and the speech will flow through you to your audience.

You will stick the landing on the slides that are the nucleus of the talk.

You will be awesome.

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