Crappy First Slides (The Shitty First Draft for Presentations)

by Oliver Adria on 19/03/2009

just_start_creatingPresenter’s block

Sometimes I will have trouble starting a presentation. It’s a mixture of challenges, but one factor is procrastination. I just have difficulty stopping everything I’m doing, making space on my desk and then brainstorming on an idea for 10-20 minutes. It’s not impossible, and of course when doing a lengthy and big presentation (e.g. a 3 hour workshop) I will gladly do it. But in addition to that there are other challenges, e.g. sometimes no ideas will come into mind and I have no idea how to even begin a presentation. Presenter’s block, if you will. Did you ever experience anything like this?

So for some of the shorter presentations where I know the material quite well, I will use an approach that I have learned quite recently: The shitty first draft.

The shitty first draft explained

I first read about the shitty first draft on 43folders, and the term was used by the author Anne Lamott who would have writer’s block or just couldn’t start writing good stuff. So what she would do is just start writing and writing and in this initial writing she would not care whether or not this is Nobel Prize material (well, I’m exaggerating a bit). But she is writing it, not expecting it to be perfect at all, it’s just so she has a base on which she can work on later. Once the (shitty) base text is written, she would revise, revise, revise. She would include new stuff that she thought of during the revision stage and she would remove some stuff that she thinks doesn’t fit in after all. And in the end, it’s possible that only a tiny part of the initial draft will survive the revisions, but approaching the writing without the pressure of it being perfect just makes it that much easier to start writing. At least it has been tremendously easier for me to write anything. And this approach can also be used in presentations.

Applying it to presentations: Crappy First Slides

I would just open PowerPoint or Keynote (or maybe you’re more comfortable starting on paper, then start on that) and start creating the slides. I would spend maybe 15-60 seconds on each of the slides, just whizzing by them, writing some text here and there, creating some shapes, maybe a photo comes into mind and I will insert it (or if I can’t find it directly I will just write a placeholder text reminding me to insert it during one of the revisions so I can stay in “drafting mode” and continue creating slides instead of moving to “search mode”) and by the end of 20 minutes I might have 30 slides already. And I approach the slide creation with the knowledge that none of the slides are final. This takes the pressure off of me and I will have no trouble just creating and inserting stuff.

If you don’t know the material too well yet and don’t know what to write in the slides, in the days leading up to the shitty first draft, you can scan through Wikipedia a bit, read about the subject in different books and articles and just get a general knowledge of this subject and get some interesting facts. So by the time you start working on the slides, you will have a general knowledge of the subject, and when you start creating slides, you don’t have to constantly look up any things (this will break the working flow which makes drafting that initial text ineffective).

Revise, revise, revise

At the end of the initial draft phase, I will have a good idea about what the presentation will look like. I have a vague structure already and there is storyline on which I can start working on. Then I would go to some of the slides, go into the presentation software’s “overview mode” (where I would have all the slides laid out on the screen) and I will start working on single slides. The order is not set, I will just start working on the ones where new ideas pop into mind. E.g. when I look at all the slides I might think: “Ah, I have a great idea for slide 14” or “Ah, that picture of the vase might be great for slide 22”.

In the first revision I would usually still not spend too much time on a single slide. My rule of thumb is, the further in the revision phase I am, the more I will spend on a single slide. So, in the first revision phase I will also still jump around the slides a lot, maybe spend a few minutes on slide 12, then a few minutes on slide 22. Maybe I’ll think to myself: “Hm, I don’t need slide 15 but I do need an extra slide between 5 and 6.” And in the second revision phase it gets harder to improve the slides since I will have worked on them 3-4 minutes (or more) each already, so I will spend a bit more time on the single slide. Maybe by the fourth or fifth revision I will be satisfied enough with the slides, and I will think to myself: “Anything I do now will just be something on top.”

This method of creating presentations might not work for everyone, maybe you’re much more comfortable working with mind maps and planning ahead, but this approach has helped me in some of my presentations.

A nice side-effect of working like this is that I will have gone back and forth through the slides so often and I have repeatedly worked on the different slides that by the end of the revisions I will have remembered the contents of the whole presentation quite well.

If you think you might be comfortable with this approach, why not try it in your next presentation?


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