Sep 3, 2010
So you’re starting a new problem-solving project. Start developing your final presentation on the first day of your project. That will help you get to a better solution and get there more easily.
Summarize your findings in a presentation form the first day
In these days of Powerpoint—or Keynote—omnipresence, I doubt anyone of us has to face a professional problem-solving task that won’t culminate in presenting our results to an audience. The good news is that if you build your final presentation from the first day of your project, not only will you prepare for that final presentation but you’ll also improve significantly your problem-solving effectiveness and efficiency.
Organize your thinking in a storyline
Think about the way they make movies: shooting comes after storyboarding. That is, they make sure that they know precisely what to shoot before putting it on film. You should do the same.
On your first day, start by creating the storyboard of your final presentation, capturing the introduction of your problem (situation, complication, key question) and what you expect the solution will be. Of course, most of it will be assumptions—or hypotheses—but the point is to start with the end in mind.
If you feel uncomfortable having a mix of established facts and best guesses in your storyline, you can signal the ideas that are guesses, for instance by putting a “tentative” on the corresponding slide (see the example below). Capture the storyline in the tag lines of your slides, having one idea per slide. That way your story is malleable: each slide is a capsule that can contribute differently to your overall story depending on its position.
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Start by assembling the storyline, i.e., the summary of your message and distribute it on the taglines of your slides
On your first day as well, create a slide called “Appendix” and put behind it everything that’s relevant to your problem but doesn’t quite fit in your storyline, either because it is a related point but not quite central or because it is too low or too high in the detail level. So your presentation has two parts: your main deck of slides, which summarizes your essential story and comes before the Appendix slide and the supporting details that come after it.
Now developing your presentation from day one doesn’t mean that you can bypass the other problem-solving key activities we’ve discussed, such as developing a problem identification cardor building logic/issue trees. On the contrary, these are the basic analysis that help you shape your story. Therefore they need to be in your deck, usually in the Appendix but sometimes—especially in the early stages—in your main deck.
Support your storyline by gathering evidence
Once you have prepared a storyline, populate your slides with the evidence that support their tag lines. So, for each slide, you’ll be looking for the information that proves your tagline. If you find such evidence, that means that your best guess was right in the first place.
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Fill out the body of your slides with the evidence that support their taglines.
Then, congratulations, you are an admirable person! More likely, you’ll be wrong in many of your original guesses. So, with your new evidence in hand, re-formulate the tag lines to reflect that new evidence and re-think your storyline.
In your analysis process, you’ll probably review countless reports, technical papers, articles and so on. It is a good idea to summary each of theses in one—or, if necessary, several—slide. It is difficult at the beginning of your project to see how all the pieces of the puzzle will fit, but by having a quick summary of evidence on a slide, you make it easier for you to see, as a whole, what supporting material you’ve found. As a general rule, try and write one slide a day.
Reap the benefits
There are several benefits from working on your final presentation from the first day. Here are the main ones.
Avoid the penultimate day syndrome. If you ever pulled a all-nighter before an exam or a presentation you’ll probably remember that you were not exactly at your best for the big event. By starting working on your presentation on the inception of your project, you can see your story evolve and can keep track of how far it is from being finished. That way you’re not left with finding huge gaps hours before the big event. Oh, and also you get a chance to improve the persuasiveness of your argument by having time to think about the balance of logic, emotion and credibility that will work best. And you won’t forget data, or leave as many mistakes.
Work on hypotheses. Complex problems require large amounts of analysis. If you lose track of where you’re going at any moment in the analysis, you can get lost and run in circles. By having a storyline and looking for the evidence to support it, you always work on hypotheses, and that will help you focus your thinking, cutting through the irrelevant details to keep you on target.
Have everything in one place. Working on a complex problem also means that you will uncover many evidence. Even the electronic ones can get lost on your hard drive. With a presentation you have everything in one place, so you avoid losing stuff.
Coordinate your team. If you’re in charge of a team, having a clear story line is helpful in delegating work. Go back to the example above, I thought that not involving the Engineering department in cable negotiations was the primary reason for delays. I can now ask one of my analyst to study the cause of delays by department. If I have a large team working on a complex problem, having a clear storyline is a good way to see the entire forest while I ask my team members to work on the individual trees.
Be prepared to report at any time. As you work on your final presentation, you can easily adapt your slide deck to give progress report by re-arranging their order and deciding which ones need to be in the main set. Therefore you are always ready to report your progresses and—using Minto’s pyramid principles—you can do it for any amount of time: from the 30-second elevator test to the 2-hour full-blown milestone meeting. You’ll project the image that you’re in control because, well, you’ll be in control.