Everybody agrees that you should be simple and clear when you communicate, but exactly how do you do that? One way is to look forward to the past.
There are few times when the need to distill information is more important than when you prepare to give a presentation. Out of all of the meetings you attend, work-related information you process, e-mails you read and weblog postings you scan; what is the most important information you need to communicate to other people?
Partly because it’s so easy to get information but much harder to distill it, we often take the easy way out and just show other people everything rather than the right things. But that simply doesn’t do anyone any cognitive favors. So to do the hard work of determining importance, we have to learn or re-learn some classical techniques that are no longer in style; for example, the skill of creating a hierarchy.
The idea of a hierarchy has fallen out of fashion partly because we associate it with establishing relationships between people, but the more practical use of a hierarchy is to establish relationships between ideas. The need for a hierarchy is clear when we ask questions like: What is my main idea? What are the three main points? What are the sub-points?
The idea of creating hierarchies of ideas is thousands of years old, yet because the skill is not second nature we frequently lose our way in the information landscape. But some of highest-level thinkers in business, including leading management consultants, employ this classical art to help them find clarity. (If you want to see the classic text in the field, check out The Minto Pyramid Principle.)
One way to apply a hierarchy to your ideas is to use a simple Word document – I include a free version that accompanies my book, which Dave Pollard illustrates in his book review here. What this tool does is help you to undergo a systematic process of distilling your ideas to their essence before you start thinking about graphics or visuals. When the underlying structure of your presentation is clear, your slides can’t help but become clear as well.
Tip: Try distilling your ideas using the simple Word document which you can download for free here. Send me your own examples, and I’ll post them up to share with other readers.