Breaking Through Writer’s Block I

Writer’s block is the proverbial stuff of legend and literature. A variation on the theme is Limitless, a Hollywood film starring Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. In it, Mr. Cooper plays a down-and-out writer who beats his severe case of writer’s block with a new drug that not only jump-starts his creative output, but gives him many other advanced mental capabilities. Of course, the story is fictional—A.O. Scott’s review of the film in the New York Times called it, “an energetic, enjoyably preposterous compound… a paranoid thriller blended with pseudo-neuro-science fiction and catalyzed by a jolting dose of satire”—but the situation is very real: writers do run dry.

Mr. Scott went on to list the real attempts tortured writers have made to get past their paralysis: “Sharpen 10 pencils. Eat a sandwich. Pretend that the first chapter of your long-overdue opus is a casual letter to your grandmother. Weep quietly. Have another drink.”

However, writer’s block is not limited to aspiring and professional writers who are trying to craft their next article on deadline or write The Great American Novel. Presenters, too, are frequently faced with having to crank out their next great pitch. Their bar is not as high as that of a solitary writer staring at a blank computer screen or a yellow legal pad. Most presenters belong to a team—a business unit in a large company or a small start-up—and so they have access to their colleagues’ slide shows.

Therein lies the problem: businesspeople consider their presentations to exist primarily in their decks. Many companies amass a large, searchable database of slides for anyone in the organization to access. Enter “corporate strategy” and dozens of slides containing those words download in an instant. The problem is then compounded when presenters pick out what they think are the appropriate slides and then assemble them in a meaningful order—but meaningful only to them. The resultant aggregation is what is known as a “Frankendeck.”

It gets worse. Having to rely on a set of disparate slides created by others, the presenter reads the slides verbatim to the audience. The inevitable result is a train wreck.

The problem with this method of preparation is that it starts in the middle of the creative process and then jumps to the end, skipping several important steps along the way.

A simple solution is to begin at the end instead. Do what author Stephen R. Covey recommends: begin with the end in mind—which in a presentation, is the goal or objective of your pitch.

By beginning with the objective and not with the slides, the entire story has an overarching focus. Then, still working without slides, follow these next steps:

  • Analyze your audience and how they will react to your objective.
  • Brainstorm ideas that support your objective and address your audience’s needs.
  • Identify the key ideas and discard the irrelevant ones.
  • Organize the key ideas into a logical flow.

Only then are you ready to design slides that serve their sole purpose: to illustrate the key ideas.

This step-by-step process is a prescription not for a magical drug but a solution that will enable you to realize your own creative process—and create presentations that win.

This blog is an excerpt from my book Winning Strategies for Power Presentations published by Pearson. Also check out my newly released Presentation Trilogy—Presenting to Win, The Power Presenter, and In the Line of Fireavailable on Amazon and other retailers.