Tricks for getting to the core of your story (Part 1)

Doug Neff

Written by

Doug Neff

So you have a topic for a presentation and you’re ready to start building slides in PowerPoint, right?

Not so fast.

Before you reach for that mouse, you might want to spend some time getting your story straight. After all, presentations are basically just stories. And great presentations always come from great stories.

At Duarte, our clients come to us with a story. Sometimes it’s refined and ready to go, only needing some polishing from us. And sometimes it’s not ready at all, needing what construction crews might call a “teardown and rebuild”.

When a teardown is necessary, we start the building process in the same way you would build a house. We start with the foundation. Think of it as the “essence” or “core” of your story. It’s the nugget, the kernel of the story that makes it interesting and compelling. It’s the entirety of your presentation, wrapped up into a single short phrase.

Once you know the foundation of your story, you’ll be able to build a much better presentation.

But how do you find it? Following are three tricks I like to use:

1. Spaghetti on the Wall

If you’re like me, you think better in conversation with others. When I’m having trouble getting at the essence of a presentation, I like to grab three or four people from around the office, then head off to the Creative Lab or the Bean Bag Corner for some good old-fashioned brainstorming. Basically, we keep passing the story around the room and talking about it. And we write down everything that comes out of our mouths. (For more tips, see Diandra’s terrific post on brainstorming.)

This is really a shotgun approach to the problem, and we’ll usually end up with many more ideas than we need, but the process itself usually helps me see the story more clearly. Did you catch that? The ideas are just gravy. It’s really the clarity I’m looking for. By the end of a good brainstorm, I can see the entire story better than when I started.

In extreme situations, we’ll bring it to our Monday all-staff meeting, divide the company into groups of five or six, do a quick briefing, and turn them loose. In fact, Nancy used this process a few times while writing slide:ology.

Be careful, though. Shotguns can be dangerous if not handled carefully. Save this tool for when you need it. And make sure you know what you’re doing. (Creativity Today is a wonderful resource, and can show you how to lead really effective brainstorming sessions.)

This is part one of a three part series. Stay tuned for trick #2 and #3.

Check out these related courses

Presentation Principles™

Learn presentation basics

Follow a step-by-step method to write compelling stories, amplify ideas visually, and present with confidence while learning at your own pace.


Turn ideas into visuals

Use visual thinking and design principles to transform information into effective and memorable graphics for presentations.


Create “skimmable” documents

Build helpful pre-reads and impactful leave-behinds with presentation software to support knowledge sharing and decision-making.