Thursday, July 3, 2014

Breaking down a problem: a guide for presentations and essays

Years ago, I was stuck on an essay for school, not knowing where to start and end and going all over the place. My mom taught me her methodology and I still apply it today, somewhat modified to fit my needs, especially when it comes to PowerPoint.

Here are the 5 main steps of how to break down a problem in manageable chunks:
1. Understanding where you want to go
2. Outlining your plan
3. Intro & conclusion
4. Filling the blanks
5. “Special FX”

Let’s see them in more details.

1. Understanding where you want to go
Once you have your assignment, whatever the subject and the medium, you need to make sure you understand what is expected of you. 

You can use the 5 Whys to drill down to the root cause of your subject. Also, school essays tend to have part of the answer in the question or at least key words that will come handy later on. 

Don’t forget to assess your audience: senior management teams won’t have time to go through 50 slides of technical details about a project you are passionate about. Teachers may give you a minimum number of lines / words / pages to comply to. Identify the key message of your work to know where you want to go.

2. Outlining your plan
Now that you know where you are going, it is time to figure out the path you will use to go there. Write down the 2 or 3 subjects / topics you will discuss leaving a dozen lines between each. 

For some of my classes, the mandatory pattern was:
  • Thesis (pro arguments)
  • Antithesis (con arguments)
  • Synthesis (which of the two you support and why)

For projects, you can follow the DMAIC or IPECC methodology. For a kick off meeting, I like to start with the current situation, where I want us to go and then how (governance of the project). 

Once you have the titles of your topics, add below each of them the arguments, key numbers, examples, quotes, etc. you will use in them. This way, you have fewer chances to forget something important, especially if you proofread yourself before starting developing your essay/presentation.

Try not to develop more than two or three key points. If you cover too much, your audience won’t remember most of it after you are done.

3. Intro & conclusion
This seems like the worst idea ever, but it actually works perfectly for me (partly because I always struggle with my first few sentences and re-write them a few times before I get it right). Once you have you plan on paper, start writing on a blank page your introduction.

State your problem or topic and why it is important to spend time on it. Numbers (or a quote) will make your introduction more effective. Don’t forget you are trying to catch your audience attention. Once the issue is up, if it is an essay, write down your plan. If it is a PowerPoint presentation, make sure you have a slide with the agenda.

Once you are done, leave a few blank lines and start working on your conclusion. It should be a summary of your different points. If there are decisions / actions that need to be taken after your presentation, list them in your last slide. Writing it right after your introduction enables you to make sure you don’t leave any “door” open and answer everything you announced in your introduction. It will make your work a lot more consistent.

The purpose is to:
  • Tell them what you are going to tell them,
  • Tell them,
  • Tell them what you told them.

You may have worked on one and only essay / presentation in the last few days and on a subject you know well, but your audience (either teachers or executive management) have receive a lot more data and information. Make sure they remember your point!

4. Filling the blanks
Now that you have your backbone, head and tails done, you just have to put some meat on your fish! Start by rewriting your introduction in your proper work. 

You can now state your arguments using proposer sentences. Use the key points, numbers, examples, etc. you have outlined before to write your actual essay / presentation.

If you are writing an essay and have the possibility, use quotes. Leave a blank line between each paragraph and make sure it is as easy to read as possible (whether handwritten or not). 

If you are writing a presentation, make sure the key numbers are accurate and easy to read. Try not to have all slides full of very small characters. Use smart arts, graphs, illustrations, tables. Split a slide in two if it helps reading it.

Try to even out the length of the different parts of your work, or at least to put as much effort in each one of them so it doesn't look like you have something to hide. 

Once you are done, you just have to rewrite your conclusion, and voilà!

5. “Special FX”
Now that you have the core of your work done, you just have to make it look pretty (and pretty don’t mean pink or purple!). I actually prefer doing it along the way, but if it takes you too long, keep the page numbering, automatic summary, spell checking, etc. for the end.

You can have the best ideas in the world, if they look like dull and boring, you may not get your audience full attention. On the other half of the spectrum, your work shouldn't look like a glitter and funky colors heaven (and don’t overdo it in the slide transition department). Adapt the form of your work to your audience: different lines of work have defined expectations.

Three little other things you want to pay attention to:
  • Tone / vocabulary,
  • The use of emotions (pathos),
  • The time you have to present / the expected length of your work.

Good luck!