Isabel Allende, the famous Chilean author whose more than 20 books have sold more than 67 million copies in 35 languages, is an excellent role model for the creative process. I had the rare opportunity to meet and chat with Allende at a book-signing event for her latest novel, “Violeta.” In an effort to learn from a master writer, I asked her whether she followed Stephen Covey’s advice about beginning with the end in mind. Does she know how her novels will end when she begins to write? Her answer was an emphatic “No! Never! I just start writing; the end comes to me as the process unfolds.”
Her words brought to mind a similar approach expressed by Federico Fellini, the legendary Italian film director of such classics as La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2. In Fellini on Fellini, his book about his art, he described how he generates ideas:
I hate logical plans. Myself, I should find it false and dangerous to start from some clear, well-defined complete idea and then put it into practice. The child is in darkness at the moment he is formed in the mother’s womb.
While crafting a presentation is not quite the same as writing a novel or directing a film, it is still a creative process and you can use the same basic techniques. However, in what has become standard operating procedure in business, the common practice is to reverse Allende’s and Fellini’s approach. Most presenters start with a “clear, well-defined idea,”— usually in the form of a set of company slides—and then “put it into practice” by standing up to present. The result is the predictable data dump.
That’s because this approach reverses the natural functions of the human mind, known among psychologists as “divergent” and “convergent” thinking. Neuroscientist Casey Schwartz described the difference in a blog about creativity on The Daily Beast website:Wh
Divergent thinking is the ability to generate spontaneous, often unexpected ideas or solutions….Convergent thinking, on
the other hand, is understood as divergent thinking’s opposite: the kind of thought process that allows you to narrow down your options.
Schwartz’s analysis parallels that of Daniel Kahneman who, in his bestselling book, called the natural processes of the mind as Thinking, Fast and Slow. Both of these estimable experts are describing what happens when human minds set about generating ideas: new ideas will inevitably come tumbling around in the mind in a random, disorganized fashion. The key to managing them is to allow them to run their course before attempting to organize them.
When presenters begin their creative process with slides, they are narrowing their options for ideas. The solution is to do your convergent or slow thinking after your divergent or fast thinking; to let your mind do what it is going to do anyway: generate ideas randomly—and then capture them in brainstorming.
In the Suasive story development process, we add an important preliminary step: establish the context of every presentation by defining the goal and its importance to the audience–then begin the brainstorming.
Before you even consider your slides, consider all the ideas you want to discuss, but treat them as words, not images. If you start with your slides, you front load your mind with everything from the color or size of the font to a pre-existing sequence. Instead, start with your ideas and write them on paper, or on a computer screen, a whiteboard, or sticky notes. Then look at all of the ideas objectively and decide which ones you need and—more importantly—which ones you don’t need.
Do the data dump in your preparation not in your presentation.
Do your divergent thinking before your convergent thinking.
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 Fire—available on Amazon and other retailers.