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Business Presentation: Brainstorming

This lesson is a part of an audio course Nail Your next Business Presentation by Emily Carlson Goenner

Once you know you have to give a presentation, whether long or short, you have to learn about the topic. Sometimes, you'll be given a topic—a sales report or financial analysis. Other times, you may have to develop the idea yourself, come up with a suggestion to pitch to our client. Either way, the beginning may feel overwhelming. Where do you even start? Most topics are large, and narrowing them down to digestible bits for an audience is hard work. Your job as the presenter is to determine how to give the audience information they need or want as clearly and concisely as possible.

Before narrowing, though, expand. Presentation expert Nancy Duarte suggests starting with brainstorming. Put away your screens and templates. Opening a blank document or slide template does not inspire creativity in idea creation. Instead, gather a pad of post-it notes and a big marker. Give yourself 5 minutes to come up with as many ideas as you can. Write one, and only one, on each post-it note. The marker is intentionally large to limit your ability to write much on the note—you want one idea on each note. Write everything you know about your topic and everything you wonder about—ask questions, what are you interested in? Say you're giving a presentation on planning for retirement. You may have a lot of questions—when should I start? How? What is an IRA or a 401K, and which do I want? Write down all of these questions. They may help you later when you're organizing your presentation because your audience may have some of the same questions.

At this first stage of brainstorming, you are listing any ideas that come into your mind—silly, unrelated, related to anything. At this stage, there is no judgement on your ideas or your questions. You want quantity. The quality will come later. The more ideas you can think of now, the easier your more detailed planning with be because you have a more comprehensive scope of the project.

Once you're finished with your initial brainstorming, stick your post-it notes on a large piece of poster paper, or on the wall. Don't worry about the order or organization—just stick them somewhere.

Then, walk away.

What? Yep—I said walk away. The best way to nail a presentation is to prepare, and sometimes preparing requires a brain break. In the brainstorming process, your mind was in search mode, so to speak, trying to pull in as many ideas as possible. Now, we want to give yourself a break and let your brain reset.

If possible, come back to your post-it notes the next day. When I teach presentation to college students, I do the brainstorming idea gathering on one day and the next step—the organizing—in the next class period. Simulate something like that. If you're on a tight time frame, at least set the notes aside and walk down the hall, get a drink of water or use the restroom. Moving around and changing scenery will help your brain reset as well.

When you return to your notes, you will begin organizing. The wonderful thing about post-it notes is you can move them around, re-organize and do it again, so you'll move and remove ideas. At this stage in your brainstorming, you are looking for themes or ideas that are related to each other. If this is the presentation on planning for retirement, maybe you have a series of ideas about when to start and another about types of plans.

At this point, you may find some of your earlier ideas are irrelevant, which is just fine. You don't have to save or use every idea. The purpose of the initial brainstorming was to get as many ideas as possible, and the purpose of this second round is refining. Add an "extra" or "not useful" idea list where you can put your unused ideas, or ones that don't quite fit into your other categories. Don't throw out these post-it notes yet, though. As you think about your topic, you may see new or different ways of dealing with information—you never know!

By the time you have completed the second, organizing portion of the brainstorming, you should have several topic areas. You may have to narrow these, or expand them, but the initial areas are your place to start. Maybe you have to do research now, or talk to co-workers or team members. Maybe you have to look at other documents within the company or gather information from other companies or clients. This is great, and those are your next steps. Maybe you were assigned a topic, or you are presenting on a project you've been working on. Now, you should have an idea of topics you want to speak about.

The brainstorming activities are meant to free your mind, first, and gather any and all ideas. This helps to ensure you are covering important areas and may help you see things in different ways. The second step helps you begin to organize and shape your ideas, which you will continue to do.

Today's task is to practice the brainstorming series. If you have a presentation coming up, use that topic. Gather some post-it notes and a marker. Write down every idea you can think of. Then, after an hour or several days, return to the ideas with new eyes. Organize the ideas you had and add new ones if you need to. While it may seem unnecessary, this creative step in the presentation process is incredibly important for creating engaging presentations.