Why a ‘dot dash’ or ‘outline’ is not enough when preparing papers and presentations

Why a ‘dot dash’ or ‘outline’ is not enough when preparing papers and presentations

Outlining your ideas for a coming communication is helpful. It helps get your ideas out of your head and into some sort of order.

At McKinsey these ‘dot dash outlines’ were baked into our process.

Someone preparing a client presentation would draft one with the Pyramid Principle in mind. They would then review with colleagues and managers before preparing their paper or presentation.

They might also get expert help from someone like me who specialised in the Pyramid Principle.

So far so good.

It makes excellent sense to debate an outline rather than a whole document, which might not hit the mark. It saves rework and improves synthesis.

This works well when everyone has an agreed workflow and approach for structuring the messaging.

But outside consulting, ‘outlining’ is insufficient. Ambiguity, competing demands and a greater need for socialising a message before finalising a paper render get in the way.

Rising above this ‘corporate quagmire’ requires a structured way for leaders to review messaging without getting bogged in Track Changes.

Here’s how to change this dynamic.

  1. Understand why outlining keeps you and your team burning nights and weekends on rework.
  2. See how poor outlining leads to dysfunctional collaboration, communication and decision-making.
  3. Add rigour to your outlining to speed up iteration, deliver more insightful messages and elevate decision-making.

I’ll now explain further.

Understand why outlining keeps you and your team burning nights and weekends on rework. Here’s why. Outlining …

  • Lacks constraints that push you to think. Ideas can wander anywhere. How do you know if your ideas hang together? Do they form a coherent argument? Do they get to the heart of the right matter?
  • Relies on one of two dysfunctional editing strategies. Both providing input via Track Changes and meeting to work on the doc live keeps comments in the weeds. It limits everyone’s ability to zoom out and focus on the big picture message.
  • Is only a minor step change up from preparing the paper or presentation without one. Outlines can still be lengthy and require significant time to review as the main idea is buried.

Poor outlining leads to dysfunctional collaboration, communication and decision-making:

  • Iteration leads to murky messaging that doesn’t deliver maximum value to the team or the organisation.
  • Leaders leave their contribution until the paper becomes urgent because drafts aren’t quick and easy to review.
  • Everyone scrambles at the last minute to finalise the messaging inside the paper or presentation. Familiar?
  • Decision makers offer more questions than decisions as they seek to clarify the messaging, which is buried ‘at the bottom of page 47’.

Instead, adding rigour to your outlining speeds up iteration, delivers more insightful messaging and elevates decision-making.

Here’s how to do that:

  1. Mandate that everyone uses a single, highly structured PowerPoint page rather than a prose ‘doc’ to lay out their thinking.
  2. Limit drafts to an A4 or letter sized page with text no smaller than 10 points.
  3. Insist on full sentences for each point on that one pager so ideas are fully formed.
  4. Organise these ideas into a ‘shape’ that includes a short introduction, a single main message and 2-5 supporting points that are arranged logically.
  5. Iterate this one-pager, leaning heavily on the structure of the messaging, until the message clicks.

My new book, Elevate, helps you and your team go beyond ‘outlining’ to crafting powerful insights that drive decision making.

It helps leaders lift the quality of thinking in their team’s papers without rewriting them yourself.


Learn more here >>

PS – I am offering bonus Hub access for those who order soon, you'll find details on the book info page >>


The wrong way to write

The wrong way to write

Podcast host Elizabeth Bachman asked me an excellent question today.

Why do leaders rework papers at night and weekends?

The short answer is that reviewing dense drafts takes thinking time, and such time is hard to find during regular hours.

Let’s unpack how that works, why it matters and what to do about it.

I began by asking Elizabeth what she does after opening a dense email from someone.

Her answer was simple. 


“I take one look, realise it’s too much and park it for later … .”


In other words, it is too hard to read.

Yet, leaders regularly find themselves making sense of dense drafts on behalf of their teams.

And this often happens at night and on weekends.

There is not enough ‘thinking time’ during the day.

It is also signals that both leader and team are working at least one level below their pay grade.

Here’s the alternative.

  • Start you and your team thinking early about the very specific outcome you need from your communication.
  • Set yourselves up to iterate on the high-level messaging so you can easily ‘see’ and iterate on the message.
  • Don't prepare the actual paper or presentation until you are (mostly!) clear on the messaging.

The conversation with Elizabeth will be out in the middle of the year, but you can catch the key ideas in my latest episode of Cutting Through.

Dan Musson and I discuss how to get out of the quagmire that can be preparing papers for leaders and boards.

You’ll love it.

Check it out here on my book info page, or on your favourite podcast player.

I hope that helps. More soon.




My new book, Elevate, is now on Amazon

Elevate helps leaders set their teams up to prepare papers and presentations that they don't need to rework.

Dan and I talk about it during the podcast episode I mentioned above.

>> Learn more here.

PS – Order during May for 6 months' free access to the Clarity Hub.

How to Engage Senior Leaders and Boards

How to Engage Senior Leaders and Boards

Do you spend more time than you would like reworking papers and presentations?

My guess is that you do, and that this rework happens out of hours too.

Here are two ideas to help you and your team get out of the weeds … AND prepare your papers and presentations (mostly!) in work hours.

Idea #1 – listen to my latest podcast interview.

Dan Musson and I pick apart the ideas from my new book, Elevate. A typical exec, Dan freely admits that writing board reports hasn't always been his favourite task.

We unpick why and what has changed since he read the preview copy of Elevate.

The interview is on the book info page as well as YouTube and on the Cutting Through podcast.

Idea #2 – get a copy of my new book, Elevate.

Elevate, introduces a time-tested operating model for cutting the rework for you and your team.

Anyone purchasing a copy before 30 May can claim 6 months' free access to the Clarity Hub.

Learn more here.

Kind regards,


The wrong way to write

The wrong way to write

Learn a better way to write for senior leaders that won't result in reworking papers at night and on weekends.

When to avoid reviewing other people’s papers and presentations

When to avoid reviewing other people’s papers and presentations

Most of us review communication for colleagues.

When doing this, the temptation is to dive in and edit the words on the page.

This involves going straight into the detail, fixing typos, changing words and potentially tightening or removing sentences or whole sections.

In other words, it requires you to work bottom-up to iterate in the weeds to hope you find the message.

This is time-consuming and messy, and inevitably leads to more rework and less clarity. It means you contribute to what I call the Chain of Pain. See below.


It is also unlikely to drive a fast and effective business outcome.

Here is what I suggest instead.

If you don't know what specific outcome your colleague is shooting for and can't find the main message at a glance …. ‘make like Kissinger'.

He is famous for asking his subordinates the following question before reviewing their work.

“Is this your best work?”.

If yes, great. He'd review it.

If not … he'd ask them to keep working on it before using his time to review.

I hope that helps. More soon.

Kind regards,

How to keep your board on topic

How to keep your board on topic

How to keep your board on topic

Has this happened to you?

You have an important presentation to make to a senior leadership group and a big chunk of the time is spent talking about ‘background’.

The leaders ask every question under the sun about the history of the program, what you have done in the past and you find yourself repeating your last five presentations.

You use precious face time with them looking backwards rather than looking forwards.

This has been a hot topic with my clients lately so I thought I'd share my number one strategy for avoiding this conundrum.

Here it is: Get straight to the point to make your audience curious about what you want to discuss.

There is a tendency to assume that leaders need all of the detail so they can understand your main point.

In my experience this has the opposite effect. Leaders don't know how these ideas are relevant and so interrupt with questions that seek clarification.

Instead, I encourage my clients to introduce their main message very early in the communication.

This then makes your audience curious about the things you want to discuss, rather than setting them up to take you on a guided rabbit hole tour.

When done well, this sets your audience up to ask questions that invite you to provide the necessary background information.

It puts it in the right context, lifts the quality of the discussion and reduces the risk that you will be sent back with more questions rather than the decision you need.

I hope that helps you keep your board on topic next time you present.
Regards, Davina

PS – Can I ask a favour? If you like my emails and would like to learn more from me, follow me on LinkedIn.

I am setting myself up to become a LinkedIn course creator and need more followers to meet their criteria.

Thank you!


The wrong way to write

The wrong way to write

Learn a better way to write for senior leaders that won't result in reworking papers at night and on weekends.

How to know if your communication is quality

How to know if your communication is quality

Do you ever wonder if your papers and presentations hit the mark, or if your stakeholders are just being nice?

Today one of my clients laughed and said that at the end of our program, he now has a very different view of what good looks like.

After learning new strategies for clarifying the desired outcome for his communication and then how to structure a message that achieves that outcome, he sees the world differently.

So, I thought I'd share with you the top five questions that he and his colleagues now ask when reviewing their papers and presentations. Does the communication ….

S – Set the scene quickly by drawing the audience toward one insightful message?
C – Convey the right balance of strategic and operational detail?
O – Organise the ideas in a well-structured hierarchy?
R – Ready the audience for a productive discussion?
E – Engage the audience using a medium, style and tone that suits them?

This is one of the frameworks we'll focus on in my upcoming Board Paper Bootcamp programs.

I will host one for the European and American time zones during October and another for Australian and American time zones in March.

>> Learn more here.

I hope that helps. More next week.

Kind regards,

PS – You can learn more about this framework inside the Clarity Hub too.


The wrong way to write

The wrong way to write

Learn a better way to write for senior leaders that won't result in reworking papers at night and on weekends.