Ready, Fire, Aim

The next time you aim to write something, the best place to start might not be paper, but your PowerPoint slides.

Silicon Valley legend Guy Kawasaki was one of the people responsible for the success of the Macintosh computer, and today spends his time helping people start new businesses. I asked him recently about the interrelationship between his live presentations, his slides, and his books; and he said:

"I work in the opposite order of most people. First, I make the slides. Then I give the presentation many times. Then I write the book. I like to perfect the slides and presentation first and elaborate on them to write a book. If your speeches work, then your book will too. The opposite is not true."

At first it might sound odd to present an idea before writing it down, but by flipping conventional wisdom on its head, Guy is helping to re-write the process of writing.

aimDuring the days of the dot-com boom, the phrase "Ready, Fire, Aim" meant that you should get out a new idea fast and early in its unfinished state, so you can get valuable market feedback before you fine-tune it to a specific purpose and market. The principle holds true long after the dot-com bust, especially for your presentations.

The key to this approach ties back to your fundamental mindset that gives form to your presentations. Is your PowerPoint static, inflexible, and fixed in stone; or is it fluid, flexible and living? Is your presentation a bucket for you to pour data and information into an audience’s head, or is it a river for you to nourish a conversation and engage with your changing environment?

There may be times a static PowerPoint might help you get the results you want, but if you choose a fluid version, consider how entrepreneurs approach their presentations every day. These days, it’s common for startup CEOs to "write" their business plans in PowerPoint slides first, before they write out the ideas in longer, narrative detail. Then they hit the road and show the presentation to anyone who will listen — friends, family, co-workers, and potential customers.

During one of these presentations, the CEO will ask what people think, and someone in the audience might say, "I just don’t get it", or "There’s no way that’s going to work," or, "Your basic premise is flawed." Some less-hardy entrepreneurs might view this negative feedback as reason to pack up the PowerPoint and go home. But the hardier breed will look at every comment as an opportunity to improve the ideas and the message. Every disagreement is an opportunity to engage, reflect and either strengthen or adapt. Only after going through these rigors of reality will the CEOs develop out the ideas in more detail, and then approach investors about it.

This approach can actually reduce the risk that an idea will be rejected, because it’s been pre-tested in the marketplace of ideas first, and pre-qualified against 3 principles:

1. Your idea grows stronger as it moves from the abstract to the concrete. An idea in your mind doesn’t do anyone else any good until you communicate it to other people. Get your idea out early and find out what the world thinks.

2. Whatever doesn’t kill your idea makes it stronger. Ask people what they think, and appreciate people who disagree — they’re the ones you can give most credit toward strengthening your idea. Get feedback, find out what works, discard what doesn’t, and keep moving forward.

3. Your excitement for your idea is what gets other people excited. As you share your ideas with other people in person, you have the unique opportunity to demonstrate the passion that will help you overcome the forces that will surely work against your idea. Without your passion, no one else will become passionate.

Whether you’re writing a book, a business plan, or any other media document to communicate an idea, try a "ready-fire-aim" approach to make sure your idea stays on target.

Tip: The next time you have a new idea, try field-testing it first in a PowerPoint presentation. If it’s a brief idea, present the idea on a single slide, and then ask other people what they think about it. Or if you have a much larger idea or a sequence of thoughts, put a single idea on each slide and develop it out in a storyboard. It may be easier for people like Guy who are professional speakers to make a presentation, but that’s all the more reason why you should stretch yourself to do something you’re not comfortable doing. If you limit yourself to only a single media expression, you’re limiting yourself to only your known universe. Challenge yourself to do what’s most difficult for you. Anyone who is a writer should stretch herself to speak and design. Anyone who is a speaker should stretch herself to write and design. Anyone who is a designer should stretch himself to write and speak. When you challenge yourself to do the counter-intuitive, like writing your slides first, you open yourself to new possibilities you may not have seen from a previously limited view.

This entry was posted in Business Strategy, Communications, Media, PowerPoint, Presentations, Web/Tech, Weblogs. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to “Ready, Fire, Aim”

  1. Guy Kawasaki…

    …on presentations: They suck: too many slides, too much information on the slides, too small font, and “read” not “spoken.” (via beyond bullets). Heres the whole enchilada. Eat, uhm, read it now….

  2. Guy Kawasaki…

    …on presentations: They suck: too many slides, too much information on the slides, too small font, and “read” not “spoken.” (via beyond bullets). Here’s the whole enchilada. Eat, uhm, read it now….

  3. Cliff,

    Testing ideas in PowerPoint and then designing the presentation (and written material) is a powerful concept. It reminds me of set-based design.

    With set-based, you test product designs first and then design the product. This eliminates the costly design => test => redesign cycle.

    Marketing suggests that we should do market research to discover the metaphors people use when they think of our product. Perhaps, as part of the feedback process, it would also be helpful to explore the best metaphor or analogy for an idea or business plan.

  4. cw says:

    Hal Varian, a very successful micro-economist before he became Dean of Berkeley’s school of information and author of the internet boom book, Information Rules, wrote that he develops academic papers the same way. He presents them and presents them, then when people stop asking questions he figures he’s anticipated all the important questions and writes the paper.

    His papers are very well written and influential, though I’ve heard his presentation style leaves a little to be desired. So this technique can work well even for someone who favors writing over presentation.

  5. Greg Brooks says:

    Cliff, a great and provocative post!

    I help service-based businesses (think: consultants) hone their proposal techniques; one of the first “Aha!” moments is typically when I tell people to write the executive summary first.

    Like ready-fire-aim testing, getting a big-picture, banners-flappin’-in-the-breeze vision down on paper first *should* guide all that follows.

  6. Engage says:

    PowerPoint: Idea crucible

    Beyond Bullets has a great article — to call it a mere post would be a disservice — about using PowerPoint to test ideas. Since I’m usually first in line to rant about poor use of that medium, it seems only fair to point out where it really shines. A…

  7. Guy Kawasaki…

    …on presentations: They suck: too many slides, too much information on the slides, too small font, and “read” not “spoken.” (via beyond bullets). Here’s the whole enchilada. Eat, uhm, read it now….

  8. Testing your idea on Powerpoint

    Beyond Bullets had a great tip about using PowerPoint to test new ideas: Tip: The next time you have a new idea, try field-testing it first in a PowerPoint presentation. If it’s a brief idea, present the idea on a…

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