Persuasive presentations: How to define your big idea

Persuasive presentations: How to define your big idea

Are ideas born interesting or made interesting? Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, offer these suggestions. 

Your big idea is that one key message must be communicated. It’s what compels the audience to change course. (Screenwriters call this the “controlling idea”.) It has two components:

Your point of view: The big idea needs to express your perspective on a subject, not a generalisation like “fourth-quarter financials”. Otherwise, why present? You may as well email your stakeholders a spreadsheet and be done with it.

What’s at stake: You’ll also want to convey why the audience should care about your perspective. This helps people recognise their need to participate rather than continue with the status quo.

Express your big idea in a complete sentence. It needs a subject (often some version of “you” to highlight the audience’s role) and a verb (to convey action and elicit emotion).

When asked, “What’s your presentation about?” most people answer with a phrase like “Software updates.” That’s not a big idea; it’s a topic – no point of view, no stakes. Change it to “Your department needs to update its workflow management software,” and you’re getting closer. You’ve added your point of view, but the stakes still aren’t clear.

Try this instead: “Your department will struggle to meet key production deadlines until we update the workflow management software.”

Another example: If you say your presentation is about “the Florida wetlands,” that’s also just a topic. Add your point of view and what’s at stake. For instance: “We need to restrict commercial and residential development in Florida’s wetlands, because we’re destroying the fragile ecosystem there and killing off endangered species.”

People will move away from pain and toward pleasure. Prod them (with words like “struggle” from the first example; “destroying” and “killing” from the second) so they feel uncomfortable staying in their current position. Lure them toward your idea with encouragement and rewards (the promise of meeting deadlines; protection of endangered species).

Generate content to support the big idea

Now that you’ve articulated your big idea, it’s time to create your content, but don’t fire up your presentation software quite yet. Software forces linear thinking – one slide after another – so it’s not the best tool for early brainstorming.

Instead, change up your usual environment. Move to a new room, turn off your email and cellphone, maybe play some music. Use tactile tools like paper, whiteboards and sticky notes.

Generate as many ideas as possible by:

— Gathering existing content: You don’t have to start from scratch. Dig up other presentations, industry studies, news articles, reports, surveys – anything that’s relevant to your big idea.

— Building on existing content: Push on the ideas in the content you’ve gathered. Challenge them or consider them from a new angle. Draw new connections.

— Creating new content: Be curious, take risks and let your intuition guide you. Experiment and dream.

For brainstorming to be successful, you have to suspend judgment and stay receptive to seemingly unrelated ideas – they may lead to something great. Increase your creative yield by moving back and forth between brainstorming alone and brainstorming in a group.

Brainstorm alone

It’s intimidating to approach a blank piece of paper or whiteboard, but you have to start somewhere. Write down a key word and riff off that. Let your mind move in random directions. Then draw connections with lines. Keep brainstorming until you have a messy web of concepts and relationships to explore. This is called mind mapping. You can get special software to do it, but paper or sticky notes will work just as well.

Brainstorm in a group

When you work with others, you get more gems to choose from – and someone else’s idea may spark even more creative ones in you. Be extra kind to the folks with enough guts to put half-baked or embarrassing ideas out there. Treat every idea as valuable. Have someone facilitate and capture the ideas so the discussion can move at a fast clip (if it slows down, people will start to question and censor themselves). Or ask brainstormers to scribble ideas on sticky notes and post them on a wall. Sticky notes are the perfect brainstorming tool. They’re small, convenient and moveable – great for collecting and organising material. Limit yourselves to one idea per sticky note so it’s easier to sort and cluster thoughts.

Brainstorm alone again

Take the seeds of ideas that came from the rapid-fire group session and do another round of quiet brainstorming on your own. This will give those latent ideas a chance to develop.

Go for quantity, not quality. You may work your way through five, 10, 20 ideas until you find ones that are distinctive and memorable. This is not the time to edit yourself. Even if an idea has been expressed or used before, add it to the mix. You may later find a unique way of incorporating it.

 Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from the HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations.’ Copyright 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. All rights reserved. 

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