top of page

Seeing the Forest and the Trees

Balancing the details and big picture is always a challenge. We often feel like it's a choice between one or the other. What if we didn't have to choose?

In conversations with clients as we work on data-heavy presentations, one consistent choice has been the need for sharing ample amounts of data in a way that you still make your point.

Numerically-minded professionals dislike leaving out details for they feel it under-reports, under-sells or otherwise leaves the story incomplete.

Telling ALL the details feels like a kind of ethical honesty for some.

The more verbally-minded professionals have a distaste for details - it feels like clutter, a distraction from the "big idea" and that it ultimately confuses more than it informs.

Given a mixed audience of both these types of minds, how is the presenter to strike a balance?

1. Tell them the answer is four , and you got it by adding two and two.

Put it another way, people can be told the answer upfront so it gives the audience a frame to work with. So then instead of the game being "what's the answer?" it becomes "how did we get to four?"

Thus, the 'what' is out of the way, and the presentation becomes more about 'how' we got there.

Finally, the journey of explaining 'two plus two', i.e. the 'how', will show proof that you have the right answer, and build audience trust and respect for the presenter.

With this frame, let's see how we can arrange the talk for it to have memorable content.

2. Some details matter, some don't.

Audiences only remember a limited portion - possibly as little as half or 2/3rds - of what we share with them. This is due to how the brain processes and remembers chunks of information, and the more you increase the size of the chunks (e.g. paragraphs or slides) the less we will remember for them.

So, it's easier if we reduce the number of sections we cover, and in each section, cover only a limited number of sub-sections.

There is a main idea we are trying to communicate - this is the ONE thing you'd like people to remember if they forget ALL else in your talk.

In addition, there are up to 3 key details that explain, prove or otherwise add context to your main idea.

In general, you can go ahead with the following format:

A. Introduction - Attention getter, Main Idea and Roadmap

B. Body - Three main points, with three sub-points each, so a total of 9 subpoints

C. Conclusion - Summary and closing thoughts

Now we can reduce our content down to the main idea, the three key details and no more than three subpoints per key detail. Other details can be summarized on the screen if you're presenting live, or included in an attachment or packet, but need not be verbalized or called out on-screen.

So now our content is simplified and linear, next let's see how we can make it flow.

3. Use the toggle switch: Connect main idea, prior idea and next idea

It is a balanced switching back-and-forth between the main idea and the key details as you expound on each of these items that provides logical connection and continuity between them.

For example, you may have begun with "Excess Laptop usage is associated with chronic back and neck issues" as your main idea.

To establish and explain this, you may want to explain "1. How laptop usage overall has increased over time and why, 2. What areas of the back and neck are most affected by this behavior and how, and finally 3. What laptop users can do to mitigate or resolve this issue."

As you explain point 1, and are about to move to point 2, you may say "Excess laptop usage's increase over time correlates with back and neck pain increases in the population".

This transition statement connects the main thrust of the talk, the prior point we just concluded, and the point we are about to begin.

Conclusion: Fly high, look below

As much as we can arrange our presentations to keep all kinds of audience members happy and engaged, it only works if we ourselves are able to mentally balance the big idea and key details.

The hardest part of this is the subject matter expert's challenge - sifting the less-important details from the vital details.

So ask yourself - which details do you feel affect the outcome of the story? Which ones should people make a note of? Which ones connote most risk and reward?

Ultimately, presentations are about outcomes - what are we doing (present), what happened (past) and what's going to happen (future).

So the only details that matter explain why we are here, where we want to be and how we're going to get there.


bottom of page