“What’s the big idea?”
Surprisingly, people don’t get offended when I ask this question, and I ask it all the time. I guess it’s clear in context that I’m not upset when I ask it. Because the big idea is really important. It’s probably easier for someone like me to see the big idea from the beginning because I think big picture first, then fill in the details. For others who see the many details first, the big idea probably doesn’t come until they’ve pretty well filled in all the pieces. Neither way is better, but a presentation with a lot of details needs to be evaluated to ensure that the details fit the big picture. And the big picture needs to align with your goals for the presentation. The details aren’t the wrong place to start, if that’s how your mind works, but the details can sometimes get in the way of your story and obscure the big idea you want to convey.
So what is the big idea anyway?
The big idea is all about your goals for your presentation. What is it you want your audience to think, say, do, or know? What is a win, or a best-case scenario as an outcome to your presentation? Whatever it is, that’s what your big idea should be all about. Everything in your presentation should work in support of that idea, and anything that doesn’t relate directly to it, regardless of how interesting it is to you, doesn’t belong. In short, the story revolves around the big idea, and the big idea is what you want your audience to take away from your presentation.
When I see a presentation with a lot of information on each slide, it’s a clue that the story revolves around the details, not the big idea. It’s easy for people to delve into the details that support their story and think that it actually tells the story. But this approach asks the audience to connect the dots. A story is a distillation of facts down to something that is simple and memorable. A story is telling it to your audience by thinking about it from their perspective. Why should they care? Why is it credible? If your audience re-tells your story in an elevator, what do they say? How do they sum it up? That’s the big idea. The details you give to support or lend credibility to your story have to fit inside the simple, summarized idea. The details can’t be a substitute for your story.
Here’s an example you might have heard: Prior to the release of the iPod, there were MP3 players already on the market. Though innovative, the iPod wasn’t exactly a groundbreaking invention. But prior to Apple’s entry into the marketplace, MP3 players marketed themselves by advertising their specifications. One model might have 20hz to 22khz bandwidth and 16 bit floating point digital to analog conversion. Another one might have X megabytes of internal storage, or X hours of battery life and special conversion algorithms. They trumpeted their supposed technical superiority over the competition with the expectation that the buying public would—because they wanted the best one—look at the features, draw a conclusion, and then make the logical choice to buy the best. These marketers were making the mistake of giving facts instead of telling a story. It’s the old features vs benefits issue, and it’s a mistake that even advertising veterans still seem to make.
Then along came Apple, and they were willing to give you the specs, but their story began and ended like this: “10,000 songs in your pocket.” To a public still very much in the habit of buying CDs (remember those?) this was a compelling benefit. They connected the dots. They took a piece of electronic equipment and turned it into a big idea. A consumer will remember the benefit because it was so simply and powerfully summarized. The story had traction.
So how do you find the big idea?
It pays to buy post-its. There’s nothing wrong with putting a bunch of detail on your slides – some people think and author that way. Build all the charts and tables and diagrams you can think up until you’ve gotten everything you can think of saying out. Just don’t present those slides – they are your first draft and they are decidedly presenter-centric. Then take those slides and try to summarize each on a post-it note. Put the post-its on the wall and see how your story flows. You’ll start to see the holes in your story, and spot what’s superfluous. Are you giving them details, or drawing conclusions? Everything in your story should be in support of that main idea. Post-its are a great way to get a visual overview of the story, and they tell you if your story and your big idea are hitting the right target.
If you find yourself putting a lot of details on your slides, remember that the details can support your main idea, but can’t be a substitute for it. It’s important that you draw the conclusion for them, and then support it with an appropriate amount of detail. It all begins and ends with the big idea, and that’s what they’ll take away from your presentation. Be very clear on what your big idea is because if you’re not clear on what it is, your audience won’t be either.