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 >>

 

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,
Davina

How to shorten your communication

How to shorten your communication

Naturally, I want my two new books to be as short as possible, and I've been reflecting on the best way to do that.

It seems to me there are three ways to go about it, one of which is much more effective than the others. Let me explain.

Polish it. I tighten the language and work ‘bottom up' to improve clarity and flow. Shortening comes two ways here. I either tighten the language or improve the synthesis. I have been doing a lot of this, in part with the help of a tool called Hemingway. It's super cheap and I get nothing from sharing it. It's just awesome.

Snip it. Here I go further and cut out chunks that add no value because they repeat or are off topic. This is still a bottom-up strategy, and also one that I have been using with rigour. There comes a point, though, where this isn't enough.

Target it. This is the most effective way to cut. By taking the time at the outset to be hyper clear about the outcome I seek, I change the dynamic three ways.

  • I write less  
  • I know what to cut  
  • I know when to stop iterating and rethink


In working on what I thought was the final version of Elevate, my new book for leaders, I realised that I thought I was at the polish stage. But, I found myself struggling to polish, and frustrated by snipping and moving things around.

This frustration helped me realise I needed to get back on target. The draft wasn't doing what I needed it to do. It wasn't direct enough. It lacked synthesis in some parts and risked losing readers as the flow in one major section wasn't orderly enough.

Although of course disappointing, it is satisfying too. I am pleased to have a clear target to return to.

If you are in the middle of reworking a paper or presentation, where are you at?

Have you thought through what very specific outcome you need? If the draft feels ‘off', what is the best way to fix it? Polish, snip or re-target?

I hope that helps. More next week.

Kind regards,
Davina


Why length doesn’t matter

Why length doesn’t matter

Do you often wish other people's communication was shorter?

Or, perhaps you are asked to shorten yours?

This is a common request that I think is misguided.

Let me explain why.

Stakeholders don't ask you to make your communication shorter because it's hard to read. They ask because it is too hard to read.

So, when you use ‘TLDR' … which for those of you who aren't familiar with this term means ‘To Long, Didn't Read', try this one instead:

THDR – Too Hard, Didn't Read

To see an example and get some more ideas to help you with your communication, watch this recent workshop I ran.

>> Click here to watch

I hope that helps.

Davina

 

PRESENTED BY DAVINA STANLEY

I love what I do.

I help senior leaders and their teams prepare high-quality papers and presentations in a fraction of the time.

This involves 'nailing' the message that will quickly engage decision makers in the required outcome.

I leverage 25+ years' experience including

  • learning structured thinking techniques at McKinsey in Hong Kong in the mid 1990s before coaching and training their teams globally as a freelancer for a further 15 years
  • being approved to teach the Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto in 2009
  • helping CEOs, C-suite leaders and their reports deeply understand their stakeholder needs and communicate accordingly
  • seeing leaders cut the number of times they review major papers by ~30% and teams cut the amount of time they take to prepare major papers by ~20%*
  • watching senior meetings focus on substantive discussions and better decisions rather than trying to clarify the issue

My approach helps anyone who needs to engage senior leaders and Boards.

Recent clients include 7Eleven, KPMG, Mercer, Meta, Woolworths.

Learn more at www.clarityfirstprogram.com

 

(*) Numbers are based on 2023 client benchmarking results.

Why thinking and writing don’t mix

Why thinking and writing don’t mix

I was reminded this week of why thinking and writing don't mix if you want to deliver impact at work.

It's great if you want to keep a journal, write a novel or perhaps some poetry.

But, bear with me.

I do believe writing helps us clarify our thinking.

But I also think writing to think inside a doc or a deck makes for poor business communication.

Communication quality is further reduced by socializing your document with others.


Let me offer three reasons why I believe ‘thinking' into a document leads to cluttered communication that takes far too long to deliver value.

Clarity of messaging is compromised as we seek useful input from others. In today's busy world, messaging must jump off the page the minute someone opens an email, paper or PowerPoint.

Asking stakeholders to review lengthy docs or decks leads to a mess of track changes that focus on the minutiae rather than the substance.

Quality of insight is hard to coalesce into a cohesive argument. If you draft your ideas inside an email, a doc or a deck you will naturally wander all over the place. Your thinking will evolve some here, some there as ideas form. The structure of your story and the quality of your messaging will wander likewise.

Velocity is nearly impossible. By velocity I mean the speed with which you can create your communication, with which your audience can digest it and then make a decision. When my clients skip using a one-page storyline they frequently see at least three problems. They see extensive rework, delayed decisions and lots of last minute scrambling to ‘fix' their docs and decks.

As one CEO said to me recently:

“We chose to introduce your storylining method as it offered a system we could replicate across the business.”
“Iterating 16 times around a Board paper just doesn't make business sense.”
Now I receive a stack of one-pagers and spend 15 minutes reviewing each one before offering substantive feedback to the team.”
“The team then uses this to finesse their messaging before they quickly prepare their documents.”
“Our Board and SLT papers have improved out of sight”.



I hope that helps.

Warmly,
Davina

PRESENTED BY DAVINA STANLEY

I love what I do.

I help senior leaders and their teams prepare high-quality papers and presentations in a fraction of the time.

This involves 'nailing' the message that will quickly engage decision makers in the required outcome.

I leverage 25+ years' experience including

  • learning structured thinking techniques at McKinsey in Hong Kong in the mid 1990s before coaching and training their teams globally as a freelancer for a further 15 years
  • being approved to teach the Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto in 2009
  • helping CEOs, C-suite leaders and their reports deeply understand their stakeholder needs and communicate accordingly
  • seeing leaders cut the number of times they review major papers by ~30% and teams cut the amount of time they take to prepare major papers by ~20%*
  • watching senior meetings focus on substantive discussions and better decisions rather than trying to clarify the issue

My approach helps anyone who needs to engage senior leaders and Boards.

Recent clients include 7Eleven, KPMG, Mercer, Meta, Woolworths.

Learn more at www.clarityfirstprogram.com

 

(*) Numbers are based on 2023 client benchmarking results.

How to avoid delivering highly detailed but meaningless communication

How to avoid delivering highly detailed but meaningless communication

In a one-on-one with one of my Foundation Members this week she highlighted the difference between using a topic-driven structure and a message-driven structure when preparing her program briefing.

I share this because I hear leaders setting their teams up to prepare communication this way only to complain that the resulting communication didn't hit the mark.

Let me demonstrate by using the topic-driven strategy here for this email so you can see why it doesn’t deliver a high quality communication.

Here is her original structural outline for her program briefing (which she gave permission for me to share … and which she quickly decided not to proceed with).

  • What it is and what it will achieve
  • Why we are doing it
  • How we are doing it
    • Past
    • Present
    • Future

Here is what is wrong with this approach. It

  • Buries the meaning underneath a lot of detail
  • Assumes you will read it all (which my experience and research suggests is unlikely)
  • Leads to repetition which risks you switching off, being confused and missing important information (and possibly the main point)

See what I mean?

  • You can’t skim it to work out what I’m saying
  • There isn’t one cohesive story, even though the points are related to each other
  • You are left to tie it together for yourself … assuming you are interested enough to do so
  • It's hard to repeat to someone else later, which means the author is making themselves work harder than they need to … they aren't turning their audience into their mouthpieces


Here's a challenge for you: the next time you go to sketch an outline for a substantial piece of communication try focusing it around messages rather than topics.

I hope that helps and look forward to bringing you more ideas next week.

Kind regards,
Davina

Course: Clarity in Problem Solving

Do you ever realise part way through a project that you are not sure you are solving the right problem … or even that you are solving the wrong problem?

This then leads to a bigger problem because you realise – too late – that you don't have the data you need to communicate with your stakeholders.

In my Clarity in Problem Solving course I use my own experience using these techniques in my business as a case study, combined with a simple, high-level structure for you to follow in your own work.

The 7 module course includes detailed notes and exercises with solutions.

Learn more here.

PRESENTED BY DAVINA STANLEY

I love what I do.

I help senior leaders and their teams prepare high-quality papers and presentations in a fraction of the time.

This involves 'nailing' the message that will quickly engage decision makers in the required outcome.

I leverage 25+ years' experience including

  • learning structured thinking techniques at McKinsey in Hong Kong in the mid 1990s before coaching and training their teams globally as a freelancer for a further 15 years
  • being approved to teach the Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto in 2009
  • helping CEOs, C-suite leaders and their reports deeply understand their stakeholder needs and communicate accordingly
  • seeing leaders cut the number of times they review major papers by ~30% and teams cut the amount of time they take to prepare major papers by ~20%*
  • watching senior meetings focus on substantive discussions and better decisions rather than trying to clarify the issue

My approach helps anyone who needs to engage senior leaders and Boards.

Recent clients include 7Eleven, KPMG, Mercer, Meta, Woolworths.

Learn more at www.clarityfirstprogram.com

 

(*) Numbers are based on 2023 client benchmarking results.