Last night, my husband Mike and I had a wonderful time at a painting party. Although we hadn’t received the unwritten memo about BYOB (or in this case BYOW), we managed to have fun following along with the instructor while he re-created a landscape painting of a beach. About halfway through, however, we were both frustrated with our progress. Our sloppy brush strokes in no way resembled the clean lines of the original. After a while, I realized what the problem was: the instructor had us focusing on the trees while ignoring the forest.
Besides being a great metaphor for concentrating on details at the expense of the big picture (Geddit?), it made me think about how many presentations I’ve seen where the speakers focus on minutiae rather than on broad ideas.
The problem with focusing on details
At the painting class, the instructor began by having us paint the outlines of the shapes in the painting. After that, he had us filling in shadows and highlights. Lastly, we painted the finer details.
There was no doubt that he was an accomplished artist. But the way he was teaching us concentrated on the features of the painting, rather than the underlying geometry of the scene. By having us essentially do a paint-by-numbers canvas (without the numbers, of course), the instructor didn’t give us a clear explanation of how what we were doing related to the goal of a completed landscape.
Toward the end of the class, Mike and I had what looked like OK landscapes. Then I had my Eureka! moment and was able to make some changes that improved my canvas immensely.
What is the big picture?
For me, the big picture was realizing what the foreground, middle ground and background elements of the painting should be. Some objects should seem closer to the viewer while others recede.
I thought about how I might have conducted that class. I would have started by encouraging the students to make a thorough examination of the finished painting.
See the horizon off in the distance. Observe how the cliffs in the foreground are lower than the ones in the background. Notice that the sun is rising off to the left side, which creates the highlights you’re seeing. Feel the weight of the cliffs. And know that this entire scene can be broken down into geometric shapes that fit together to form a whole. Now, I want you to start by painting the outlines you know are beneath these shapes.
By visualizing the finished scene and thinking about how it can be built before the brush touches the canvas, the student has a goal in mind, an ideal end state.
Relating this to presentations
I know what you’re thinking. “Gee, that’s great. You had an epiphany about some boho hobby of yours. What’s it to me?” Well, I’m glad you asked.
Many of my clients are scientists and engineers. They tend to focus on the details rather than the overall goal. For example, if their goal is to receive funding to continue studying how engines can be manufactured at a nano scale, many engineers will talk about the science of creating tiny engines, show photos of their work, display and try to explain the calculations they’ve performed, etc. What they typically ignore are the benefits of their research: how what they’re studying can be applied in the real world to solve problems, create new markets, make a process more efficient, and any other ways nano engines will make the world a better place.
How this helps you
The next time you’re developing a presentation, think about your goals and how they might benefit your audience or others. Think about what you want the audience to do as a result of having seen your presentation. When you have the end state in mind, you can describe it to audience at the beginning of your presentation. After you introduce your big idea, you can give the audience the details about how it can be accomplished. At the end of your presentation, remind people of what the forest looks like so that they will be able to relate the trees to the larger whole.
The result? Your audience will know why they’re listening to you, the goals you wish to accomplish, the details involved and what you want them to do to achieve the results. By painting a vivid picture for your audience, you can create a masterpiece of a presentation!