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Building Your Presentation Foundation: Outlining Content
By Rich Meiss • Monday, January 7, 2008

Designing & Delivering Powerful Presentations Series: IV

Building Your Presentation Foundation:  Outlining Content

By Rich Meiss

Good presentations begin by determining your presentation objectives (to persuade, to inform, or to entertain) and analyzing the presentation tale (time, audience, location and event).  Then it is time to build the foundation for your presentation.  Good presenters create this foundation by putting together an outline of their content.   While a traditional outline with Roman Numerals, numbers and letters will work for this purpose, let me introduce you to several other methods that we recommend.

The first outlining method is called mind mapping.  This methodology was first used by Leonardo da Vinci hundreds of years ago, but was made popular in the last century by an English adult educator named Tony Buzan.  The method is a kind of visual brainstorming, where you are “dumping” everything that is in your brain onto a piece of paper.  The methodology works like this.

How to Create a Mind Map

Take a large sheet of paper (flip chart paper works well for this), and tape it to a wall or put it on a large table.  Get some water-based markers (we recommend the Mr. Sketch brand), and write the title of your presentation in the center of the paper with a star, box, oval or circle around it.

Next, think of the main points of your presentation.  These main points are written on “arms” that are drawn from the title in the middle of the piece of paper.  Leave enough room under each main point to add sub points and other supporting information.  Once you begin the process, allow ideas to flow and simply write them down without too much concern for structure.  Use a variety of colors – and even some visuals if you like – to continue building the mind map.  Once you run out of ideas, walk away from the map for awhile.  When you return, your mind will usually generate additional ideas that you can add to your map.

Email me at for a  diagram that shows an example of a mind map on this series of articles - Designing and Delivering Powerful Presentations.

 Mind mapping may be done alone, or you may invite several subject matter experts into the room to help you mind map your presentation.  The key elements to making the process work include:

  • Use it as a tool – with no specific guidelines or restrictions
  • Be free flowing – let the ideas flow and record them as they come to you
  • Don’t worry about order or where things go – at least to start
  • Use key words rather than complete sentences
  • Add pictures or graphics/icons as appropriate
  • Feel free to connect things that relate          
  • Try short bursts – and then go back and add
  • Make your mind map as colorful and creative as you choose

My experience is that people who have not tried mind mapping generally like it IF they give it a chance to work.  Some people who are very left-brained and sequential in their approach find it a little too free-wheeling at first, but being open to using it, usually find an application or two for the process. 

Remember, our purpose for the mind map is to create a foundation outline of content you’ll cover in your presentation.  Once you have created the mind map, you may then go back and order it and organize it to work for you.  The mind mapping allows you to “dump” your brain on a piece of paper, and then organize and arrange the ideas to your liking as you see them visually before you.

Two Additional Methods for Outlining Content

If mind mapping is not suitable for your purposes, you may choose one of two alternative methods for creating your outline.  The first is to grab a set of stickies or 3x5 cards and record your main points on those.  Use one card or stickie for each main point, adding sub-points or supporting information to the back of each card.  By laying these out on a table or sticking them up on a wall, you can then see your outline develop and move the cards/stickies around as you refine your order.

The second alternative method is to create a list of ideas on a piece of paper – around a category or idea.  For example, in a presentation to persuade, you might create a list of the pros and cons for taking action on an idea.  Then develop your sub-points and supporting information around each idea.

Follow Traditional Brainstorming Guidelines

Regardless of the method you choose for outlining, follow traditional brainstorming guidelines.  These include:

  • Don’t judge the ideas  – just write them down
  • Write quickly, and only write key words
  • Don’t be concerned about order initially
  • Add pictures and diagrams if possible
  • Hitchhike on ideas as they are generated

Organize Your Main Points In a Logical Order

Once you have developed your main points for the presentation, put them into an order which makes sense for the type of presentation you are giving. 

There are a variety of ways to prioritize your points.  Here are some thought starters, including an example for each method:

-          From Simple to Complex:

This method works well for a technical presentation where participants will be learning new and more complex material.  Start with the simple ideas at first, and move to the more complex.

-          From Most Important to Least Important:

This method works well when time is limited, or when you know your audience may have a limited attention span.  Start with the most important material, covering that thoroughly, and then spend lesser amounts of time on the points of lesser importance.

-          From Cause to Effect:

Use this method when dealing with formulas or scientific material, where you want participants to understand the logical progression from cause to effect.

-          From First to Last – Chronological Order:

This method is useful when there is a series of steps in doing something or when there is a time factor involved.  The presentation explains how this needs to happen first, then this happens next, and so on.

-          From Problem to Solution:

Use this method to help participants understand the current problem and the suggested solution.

-          From Known to Unknown:

This method works well when there is new information that needs to be added to already-known information.  By linking the unknown information to that which is known, the participants can usually wrap their brains around the content.


© Copyright 2008.  Meiss Education Institute.  All rights reserved.



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