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Organize for understanding: How to fight information overload

In a previous post for SmartBrief, I introduced four simple steps for creating a powerhouse presentation. This post goes deeper on the second of the four steps, discussing the importance of organizing your information to ensure your audience receives just what they need in the most logical and memorable way possible.

A client recently asked, “How do I control the urge to give more information than my audience needs?”

Great question! In their book "Made to Stick," authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath explain that in an effort to be thorough, we often feel obligated to share every single thing we know rather than considering just what our listeners absolutely need to know. As a result, little sticks with the now-overwhelmed audience.

The power of clear organization

Let’s face it, your audience doesn’t need to know everything you know. You may have an enormous amount of information you could share, but unless the topic is your listener’s full-time job or hobby, there is a limit to how much is useful. This might be hard to hear, but the truth is, what’s brilliant to you can quickly become boring to others. It’s like looking at someone else’s vacation pictures -- fun for a few minutes, then difficult to maintain a genuine level of enthusiasm.

If you want listeners to learn something, do something or imagine something, ensure your content is crystal clear. You don’t want your audience to have to decipher what you are saying. You want them to quickly grasp and leverage what you are saying. Giving your presentation a clear structure provides your listeners with the needed road map.

This leads us to the following overarching principles about organizational structure.

Principle No. 1: Your content must support your core message

If last month’s topic, "Clarify," answered the question “What does my audience absolutely need to know?” then today’s topic, "Organize," answers the question “How am I going to amplify my core message in a way that makes sense to my audience?”

Your core message is home base. Everything in your presentation must map back to the core message. If it doesn’t, it’s irrelevant -- cut it!

If you really think something needs to be in your presentation but it doesn’t relate to your core message, you may need to revise your core message. Creating a presentation is an iterative process; it’s OK to make changes.

Principle No. 2: Your audience can handle two to five main points

When a core message has been identified, it is usually relatively easy to determine the main points that support it. Most audiences can handle two to five main points. Anything less than two, and the core message is too narrow. Anything more than five, listeners start to tune out.

If you find you have too few or too many main points, it's time to revisit your core message. Ask yourself, “What does my audience absolutely need to know?” It’s worth repeating: Creating a presentation is an iterative process.

How to organize your presentation

Keeping in mind the two principles above, follow these steps to ensure your listeners are able to quickly grasp and leverage what you are saying.

Step No. 1: Assess your content

You’ve gathered all the relevant information, including facts, examples, meaningful statistics, analogies, metaphors and quotes from stakeholders and experts (including those with opposing views), as well as your own experience. At this point it helps to lay out all the information on the table (so to speak). Get it out of your head and make it visible.

As you sort through your information, begin to focus on what your audience truly needs to know. Nice-to-know information, such as irrelevant background material or too much detail, only detracts from your message and leaves your listeners confused and overwhelmed.

Tip: While I’m a firm believer that you should clarify and organize your message before developing your slides, I believe that PowerPoint or similar slideware can also be a useful tool in these initial steps. Think of each slide just as you would an index card or sticky note -- simply in a digital format.

Use the slide sorter view to sort your ideas as you proceed through the rest of the process; move the slides around the same way you would shuffle index cards or rearrange sticky notes. (But always remember the slide deck is not your presentation!)

Step No. 2: Create a logical framework

After identifying all the possible information and culling some of the nice-to-know information, fatigue often sets in. Many people stop, thinking the brain dump is the talk. While it would be nice to think you’re done, this is when the analysis really begins. Now you have to ask questions like: “What’s the data saying? What’s the story here? Which concepts logically group together? How will it naturally make sense to my listeners?”

Keeping these questions in mind, segment your content into logical groupings—providing your audience with an organizational structure. This framework becomes the roadmap, letting your audience know where you are taking them—directly and unmistakably—from Point A to Point B.

Below are some common organizational frameworks:

  • Past, present, future
  • Problem, consequences, solution
  • Theory and practice
  • The proven journalistic approach of asking who, what, when, where, why and how

Tip: Keep in mind that there is no one correct organizational structure for any given speech. The right framework for you depends on your unique perspective and how you want to tell your story. Multiple ways could be “right.” You’ll know you’ve hit on the right structure when it just makes sense. You don’t trip up when you’re speaking; your words flow. Rather than fighting the structure, the structure carries you as you convey the information.

Step 3: Position your content in the framework

Once you’ve identified an appropriate framework, position your need-to-know information within it. (This step may entail further culling of unneeded content.) I envision a wire scaffolding with hooks on it. From each hook hangs a set of information -- a story, a set of data, a problem-solution combo and so on.

A colleague likes to think of his information as a big pile of sports equipment. His grouping is the equivalent of putting the equipment in piles by sport. Then each sport has his equipment neatly hung on the equipment rack (the framework).

Tip: What’s important at this point is to discern what to cut and what to keep. If you’re too close to the subject to decide, ask others what the most critical, interesting or actionable content is, and then save the rest for a future presentation. Or ask yourself: What do my listeners absolutely need to know, hear or understand in order to achieve the needed goal?

How do you control the urge to say too much? I’ve consistently found these three steps to be the universal cure for information overload—leaving your audience with just what they need to know in a way they can easily understand.

Intrigued? Be on the lookout for my next post in this series, where we’ll look at the process of developing your media—whether traditional slide deck or alternate audio or visual assets—to best serve your audience and effectively convey your message

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Stephanie Scotti coaches leaders and their teams for every type of presentation, from Fortune 500 CEO keynotes to TED Talks to multimillion-dollar pitches. Find her bestselling book “Talk on Water: Attaining the Mindset for Powerhouse Presentations” at Professionally Speaking Consulting.

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