How to structure a presentation: lessons from Hollywood by Anna Faherty

by Heather Dandridge  17-Aug-2016 at 12:39

How to structure a presentation: lessons from Hollywood by Anna Faherty

For many people, the idea of delivering a presentation to professional colleagues brings up images of standing in front of an audience and summoning up enough courage to speak. Being able to project an air of confidence and hold the room are, of course, key skills for presenters but there's something equally important that needs to take place behind the scenes.

Just as a Hollywood movie relies on a well-executed script as much as the pull of its stars, great presentations are well-structured and planned to the minute as well as being clearly delivered. It's not surprising, therefore, that we can learn some useful tips about structuring presentations by thinking about how filmmakers storyboard their movies.

What's the point of a storyboard?
When Hollywood filmmakers storyboard a movie they produce a visual representation of each individual 'scene'. This helps them test out their ideas and evaluate how best to reveal the story to the viewer. The storyboarding process allows the writer and director to move scenes around, delete them or add new ones before they start filming anything. In the same way, developing a storyboard for a presentation can help you test out the structure of your talk before you start designing slides or get bogged down in a detailed script.

How do I make and use a storyboard?
The easiest way to make a storyboard is to represent each stage, or 'scene', in your presentation on a Post-it. This could be a visual representation or a few words summarising the key point of that part of your talk. Lay these Post-its out on a sheet of paper, or stick them to a wall, step back and evaluate them. Look at the overall narrative that you've outlined, how the content is spread out across the available time and how individual scenes link together.

Using some movie directors' rules of thumb can help:
  • Tell a story - is there a clear narrative comprising a beginning, middle and end? If there isn't a stage that sets the scene at the start, or one that presents a clear conclusion at the end, add these in. If you don't include a hook at the start and a resolution at the end your audience may never become interested in the first place and your presentation could fizzle out like a damp squib.
  • Every scene must serve a purpose does each Post-it serve a purpose in your presentation? If a scene isn't supporting the story you want to tell, cut it, however cool or fun you think it is. The best way to keep an audience engaged in a story is to keep your presentation focused exclusively on that story.
  • Maintain continuity across scenes are you using the same images or words to represent things throughout the presentation? If you describe or depict the same thing in different ways in different scenes, update your scenes to make this consistent. You don't want your audience to spend brain energy drawing links between different phraseology when you could just use one consistent approach.
  • Only use jump cuts for dramatic effect - are you jumping from one part of the story or argument to another too quickly for your audience to follow your train of thought? If so, incorporate one or more additional scenes to guide your audience through your thinking. If your audience needs to fill in the gaps they could lose interest or think the issue is too complex for them to understand.
What do I do once my storyboard is finished?
In the film industry, the storyboard provides the template for the filming process. The director refers back to it as they organise and shoot the actual scenes in the film. In the same way, you should use your storyboard as a template for your presentation. It might provide the basis for your slides and should be the structure you follow as you speak. It might also prompt you to think about where and how images or multimedia elements could be used to enhance your talk.

Storyboarding can be a particularly useful tool if you are developing a presentation with colleagues. It helps the whole team focus on the structure of the presentation and allows the assignment of separate components (or groups of scenes) to different individuals who will be confident that what they bring back to the group will easily slot into a coherent whole.

You can find out more about structuring your thoughts, designing slides and delivering impactful presentations in Anna's new course Presentation Skills.
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