How to write a great talk: Murder your darlings

Nancy Duarte

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Nancy Duarte

Writing teachers commonly use the phrase “kill your darlings” to describe the editing process. But, most don’t even realize it comes from prolific British author Arthur Quiller-Couch, who offered an even more extensive guideline for editing in his 1914 lecture on style: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—wholeheartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” 

The same advice applies to your presentations. It’s easy to forget that crafting a presentation is a writing assignment and the first draft of anything is only “okay.” It can always be improved. Because it’s hard to come up with great ideas, it’s brutal to kill one. But if you want your most important ideas to shine, you’ll want to learn to make those severe cuts and let go of seemingly brilliant or well-written ideas.

Audiences need clarity to really understand your ideas. A study from MIT shows that humans can only process one bit of information at a time. So, whittling a presentation down to its most essential concepts helps ensure you won’t overwhelm listeners with ideas they can’t digest. Audience members don’t want it to feel like work to figure out what’s important in your content and what’s not. Keep in mind the length of your presentation matters, since multiple studies have shown that listener attention declines significantly starting at the 10-minute mark. Edit your talk to make sure it’s a length people will be engaged with and can stay tuned into.

Editing your presentation is essential, but doing it right is also tough. How do you determine what to cut out and what to leave in—especially when you feel attached to your work? Here’s how you can find your darlings, then kill the ones you don’t need in a particular talk.

An animated character with colorful lines flowing out of their mind, representing the art of brainstorming

Brainstorm Ideas, Then Get Rid of the Most Obvious

To hone in on the best information to include your presentation, hold a brainstorming session. Focus in on one of your main concepts, then make a long list of facts, stories, and data you can use to elucidate it. Once you’ve compiled a long list of potential content ideas, take a hard look at first ideas on the list because they may be the most obvious or cliché ones. Repeat this for all of your presentation’s main concepts. Getting rid of the simplest and most straightforward ideas allows you to avoid the same go-to ideas your competitors might try and it gives you the ability to approach your message from a unique angle.

Need Something More Than a Presentation?

State Your Big Idea, Then Cut What Doesn’t Support It

The Big Idea of your presentation is its major takeaway. It is the key message you want people to leave your talk understanding. Every single data point, story, or image included in your presentation should serve to support your Big Idea. So, to make sure you’re not including anything superfluous, start by getting very clear about what your Big Idea is.

First, determine your unique point of view. What about this topic are you specifically qualified to talk about? Then, figure out what’s at stake for your audience. What could they gain if they adopt your idea or lose if they don’t adopt it? This ensures you cover what matters to listeners, and why they should trust you when to advise them about it.

Once you’ve written down your Big Idea, go through your presentation draft or outline and make sure that every single item you’ve included supports it. If something is disconnected or unrelated, cut it—no matter how interesting or entertaining. Concentrating your editing efforts to support your one Big Idea strengthens your presentation by eliminating anything that could serve as a potential distraction.

A long piece of paper going through a shredder on the end, which represents the ability to edit

Make Sure You’ve Used Enough Contrast

Cut thoroughly and aggressively while you edit your presentation. However, make sure that you keep some fundamental structural elements for the finished product—particularly contrast. Using contrast as a structural device is powerful because it allows you to contrast a future that’s different from the present. This helps an audience understand your point. When you contrast the current realities with how amazing the future is with your idea adopted, they more readily understand your point of view.

Contrast also keeps a presentation engaging because it creates suspense. Listeners hear your description of their problem, then wait eagerly to hear how you will resolve it. Studies show this suspense stimulates the human brain, which helps people better focus on your talk and grasp your message.

Once you are happy with your editing process, go through your final draft and confirm there are enough contrasting elements to keep your talk interesting. If your talk lacks contrast, try adding it into your deliverycontent, or design.

Ultimately murdering your darlings can feel painful. After all, who doesn’t want to share their pet content with an audience? However, a rigorous editing process results in a presentation that works. Spend time in the cutting room every time you craft a talk, and you’ll end up giving presentations that engage and change minds.

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