Own The Stage: Here's Why Your Presentation Should Be Built Around One Big Idea

Build your presentation around one –and only one– big idea. That's the enduring lesson from Silicon Valley presentation guru Nancy Duarte.
Own The Stage: Here's Why Your Presentation Should Be Built Around One Big Idea
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Build your presentation around one –and only one– big idea. That’s the enduring lesson from Silicon Valley presentation guru Nancy Duarte. “Your primary filter should be what I call your big idea: the one key message you must communicate,” she says. “Everything in your presentation should support that message.”

Nancy Duarte is Silicon Valley’s most celebrated presentation expert, having made her name creating the slideshow for Al Gore’s climate change talks and subsequent movie An Inconvenient Truth. She’s written several best-selling books on presentation design, including Slide:ology and The Harvard Business Review Guide to Persuasive Presentations.

Sure, you may organize your material into longer lists such as “three rules” or “seven habits.” But these should all support just one big idea- the North Star that guides everything in your presentation.

A great example is An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore. Before Duarte and her team got involved, Al Gore had been giving presentations on climate change for years without making much of a splash. The Duarte slideshow changed everything, forming the backbone of the Oscar-winning movie that propelled Gore to the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

It’s a multimedia powerhouse of a presentation with more than 250 slides including video, images, charts and music, not to mention Gore’s speech, which is full of personal stories and self-deprecating humor. There are so many moving parts– and they’re all built around one big idea.

Here’s how Al Gore describes his big idea in one sentence: “Global warming is real, manmade, and its effects will be cataclysmic if we don’t act now.” Every slide he shows, and every word he says, supports this message.

(Remember this: your big idea won’t necessarily be your snappy headline. Take Al Gore: his big idea is 17 words long, while his movie title is just three words. That’s OK.)

Duarte insists that this advice is equally valid for the kind of humdrum presentations people give to managers, clients and staff every day, not just world-changing Oscar winners. When a colleague asks you what your presentation is about, don’t reply with: “Cost-cutting update.” That’s a generic topic, not a big idea. Be specific and tell them your big idea: “The new strategy will reduce costs by 20%, which means bigger bonuses for everyone.”

THREE STEPS TO ONE BIG IDEA

Duarte has a simple formula for creating a big idea (there’s a one-page guide on her company’s website www.duarte.com). Here’s a summary:

> State your unique point of view

> State what’s at stake for people who do –or do not– adopt your point of view

> Write these elements in a complete sentence

Take the title of this chapter, which I wrote using Duarte’s formula. Let’s break it down into the three steps.

“Build presentations around One Big Idea…” This states the unique point of view. It’s very specific, and it tells you what to do. You can agree or disagree, but you know where the speaker stands. Most people would go with a vague, passive topic such as: “Choosing a subject for your presentation.” Safe, but bland, passive, and sitting on the fence. Always get off the fence.

“…to give them razor-sharp focus.” This states what’s at stake for the audience, in this case for people who do adopt the point of view. This is a positive approach focusing on a benefit.

“Build presentations around One Big Idea to give them razor-sharp focus.” This takes elements 1 and 2, and weaves them into a complete sentence. Finally, look at Al Gore’s big idea from An Inconvenient Truth. Can you spot the three Duarte steps? “Global warming is real, man-made, and its effects will be cataclysmic if we don’t act now.”

Do the same for the cost-cutting presentation. “The new strategy will reduce costs by 20%, which means bigger bonuses for everyone.” 

The key takeaway: no matter how complex your presentation, be sure to write down your one big idea in one complete sentence, before you open Powerpoint, Keynote, or Prezi.

This is an edited excerpt from Richard Dean’s book, Crowdpleaser: The 100 Greatest Public Speaking Tips of All Time, from Socrates to Steve Jobs. Published by Emerging Markets Leadership Press, Crowdpleaser brings together, for the first time, 100 classic tips, tricks and hacks on the art and science of public speaking. Spread across 362 beautifully designed pages, packed full of illustrations, infographics, and templates, Crowdpleaser is available in paperback at bookstores and online priced at AED110 (around $30), and as an illustrated e-book.

Related: Infographic: How To Give Better Presentations

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