8 things to do before you even create your slides

One sharpened pencil standing out from the blunt ones.

So you’ve been asked to present at the next client meeting.One sharpened pencil standing out from the blunt ones.

Or maybe you’re pitching to investors, or maybe you’ve been invited to speak at a conference and you’ve got to get your slides together.

Where do you start? Most people would go straight to their previous presentation packs or those of their colleagues – to pick out slides that might be salvaged and reused. The urge is strong with this one. But I say, resist it.

It’s a trap!

We may think it’s the fastest and most efficient way to prepare for a presentation – but it’s not! You may end up with a slide pack that looks good – but it won’t be 100% fit for purpose. Why? Because you’re creating in a ‘let’s-use-what-we-have-and-fill-up-the-gaps’ mode rather than a ‘let’s-find-the-best-way-to-convey-this-big-idea-to-this-particular-audience-at-this-particular-event’ mode.

Here are 8 steps you should take before you even start pulling your slides together.

The following steps are what I’ve found to be the most effective way to create a pack that is both focused and relevant. It’s a mix of what I’ve learnt over the years from presentation design gurus: Garr Reynolds and Nancy Duarte as well as from my former colleagues, change and communication experts themselves: Chandni Kapur and Adele Mannering. 

1. Start by asking questions

The design, content and function of your slides depend a lot on the actual event, the audience, and of course, your big idea (or your core message). Here are some questions to think about:

  • What is my big idea?
    Your core message. The one thing you want your audience to walk away, deeply etched in their hearts and minds. The idea that you want your audience to be able to recall days or even months later. What is it? Do you know or is it fuzzy? Is there more than one? Work on it. Get really focused and figure out what is so important that it both worth your time and your audience’s.
  • Who are my audience?
    This is the anchor point for every decision you are going to make when developing your slides. You have to really know who it is you are going to be presenting to. Who are they? What are they doing there at this meeting/event? What are they interested in? How much do they know? One good way to really understand your audience in the context of your presentation, is to complete the think, feel, do exercise (you might have to scroll down almost halfway down the page to find this particular exercise).
  • What do they expect of me?
    Your audience will probably know before hand that they are going to be an audience to your presentation. Surely, they will have some expectations of what you have to offer them. Are you going to meet or exceed those expectations? Maybe even blow them away with something totally different?
  • What do I expect of them? 
    There’s got to be a point of it all. After you’re done presenting, you must make sure that you’ve done one of three things. You’ve helped your audience understand something new. You’ve moved them to action. Or, you’ve helped them get from one point to another. Whatever it is, you have to be clear from the start, of what it is you expect of them – and what you want them to do after your presentation.
  • How much time do I have?
    This is a no-brainer. The more time you have, the more you can fit in right? Wrong. Design depends largely on constraints.
    So, even if you are given an hour, try to see if you can get your message through in 20 minutes. If you’re given 20 minutes see if you can do it in 5.
  • What is the venue like?
    Is it a large hall where people seated at the back might have difficulty seeing your slides? Is it in an auditorium with 16:9 widescreen panels for your projection? Is it an outdoor event? If it’s a meeting room, what sort of seating arrangement would it be? Where will you be standing? Where will you set up your laptop? Am I presenting during the day or at night? What is the lighting like? Is there anything you need to know about the projector (I once had to present at a meeting where all the blue was projected as green. And the most of the branding elements in the slides were blue!).

2. Generate ideas

Churn out as many ideas as you can about your core message. Everything that comes to mind when you think about your big idea. I like to use stick it notes. But you can use anything that works for you – pieces of paper, brainstorming apps, mindmapping software… whatever. The thing to remember here is, don’t stop yourself. Don’t censure or judge any idea that enters your head. That’s the next step. For now, just let it all out.


3. Filter out the cr*p

Take each idea you wrote down in step three and ask yourself – is this going to help me convey my big idea to this particular audience at this particular event/meeting? If not, trash it. If yes, leave it.

4. Group ’em up

Have a look at which ideas you’ve kept. Spend some time digesting them, and figuring out which ideas sit well together. This is when you’ll need to put on your pattern recognition hat. Look for trends. Things that match. Things that relate to each other. Things that go hand-in-hand, or support each other. Things that when put together – tell a good story. You may end up with three, five or maybe even 10 groups. You can refine or merge them later.

5. Label them

Find one strong sentence that encapsulates the essence of the group. Each group should have it’s own message or idea.

IMAG01406. Place them in order

Take a look at the messages you created in step 5. What would be the best order in which you could convey these messages to your audience. The order is important, don’t rush through this. This is the backbone of your presentation. It will either make or break your presentation. For more ideas on order and structure, read Nancy Duarte’s power-packed article on HBR.

7. Add supporting points

For each of the messages, come up with a few strong supporting points. You can use the ideas that built the groups in step 4 to do this. Or you can simply start fresh now that you have a clear structure in place. When thinking of supporting points, also consider adding other elements that might help you strengthen this particular message. Think about videos, or audio clips you might use. Perhaps you might demonstrate the point physically. Maybe you have a story to share that will illustrate a point. Sometimes stats and data can help you emphasise a point. This is your chance to vary the tone of the presentation, so that it doesn’t end up monotonous nor predictable.

8. Work the visuals

Now, you can think of how you can use images (illustrations or pictures) to help you illustrate your points. Take your time with this as well. A few things to remember… for one, try not to go for the first thing that comes to mind. For example if your point is about teamwork – try not to go the usual route of using images of sports teams doing the huddle, or a cluster of hands building a formation for a group cheer… instead think about the context of what you are presenting. If you’re talking about how each person in the team has their own unique strengths and talents to contribute, perhaps you might use a photo of the various ingredients you need to use to make a curry (each one with it’s own aroma and flavour contributing to the overall taste and experience of the dish).

The other thing to keep in mind is be consistent with the style that you choose. So, for example if you plan on using a black and white image for one slide, don’t use colour for others. If you thing you might want to use an illustrated cartoon image, then don’t mix the pack up with actual photos. Go ‘illustrated cartoon’ all the way. Keeping things consistent shows that you’ve made the effort and doesn’t ruin the quality of your presentation.

Follow these steps and you’ll find that your presentation is a lot more focussed and purposeful. Good luck!

Written by Dinesh Rudra