How to have creative ideas for your presentations.

Look, you know it, I know it and your audience knows it… Boring presentations bore your audiences and as a result, no one takes in what you’re trying to communicate. No one acts on what you’ve said, because, frankly, no one listened. And if anyone did, they don’t care. (Admit it, you’ve probably been guilty of giving boring presentations, too… we all have!)

Instead, you need interesting presentations – but there’s a catch. To create interesting presentations you need a lot of things to come right for you, one of which is that you need to be a bit more creative as you create your presentation. (If you’re not being creative, you know you’re going to fall back on the tried-and-failed-idea of bullet points. Creativity gets you away from that.)


But isn’t creativity something you’re born with?


Well obviously it is up to a point but there’s so much evidence you’d drown under it to the effect that more or less anyone can be creative and that more or less anyone is more creative than they think they are and that more or less anyone can be trained to become more creative.


But isn’t creativity something that comes in flashes of inspiration, not on demand?


Sure there are flashes of inspiration but to be honest, most of those make better TV than reality. It’s very exciting to see the nerd/hero fighting a desperate problem that needs to be solved before the next advert break if the human race is to be saved from extinction/a new dark age/alien enslavement/whatever but in reality it’s much, much easier to be creative if you work at your basics and know your techniques inside out.


Alright then, smarty-pants, tell me how to be creative in my presentations!

I thought you’d never ask.

Before I do that though, it’s worth mentioning that the techniques here are going to increase the likelihood of you being creative but they’re not going to absolutely make it a rock-solid certainty. But that’s better than nothing and – as they ways to boost creativity are more or less free – you’ve not got anything to lose.

Tool one – change your environment

Coloured pencilsThis is the obvious one, isn’t it. Everyone knows about this one. As so much of what we do is controlled by both habits and our environment, it makes obvious sense to try and shake those things up. My personal experience is that it doesn’t actually take much to shake it up, which is convenient.

For example:

  • if you normally write your presentations in your office, try booking a meeting room that’s very different, or at least as different as you can. Ideally you’d be able to get a room in a different building, or at least with a different lay-out and feel. If your office is small, for example, try hiring a room with lots of table-space and big, panoramic windows.
  • alternatively, get out of your workplace altogether and write from a (good!) cafe! A warm, relaxed atmosphere with excellent drinks and a fast wifi is a boon to anyone trying to be creative
  • at the very least, change what you can! If you can’t get a different workspace, try at least to change the time of day you work; or the background music; or the lighting; or the drink you have while you work; or the way you sit; or the… you get the idea.

Tool two – become technically competent

It’s much harder to be creative if you’re fighting with your technology or if you’re not 100% on top of what you’re trying to say. The latter goes without saying, surely – you shouldn’t ever be trying to make a presentation when you’re not completely competent and confident about your content!
The former stands some examination, I think.
[jcolumns] [jbox color=’blue’ title=’Personal example – working as a lighting designer’] Longstanding readers will know I used to be a lighting designer. I specialised in working with dance companies and toured with one particular company annually for seven years. Lighting is a peculiar mix of things, as a job – it’s one part sweat as you physically and literally put heavy pieces of metal in various places overhead; and one part design, as you watch the dance, working with the choreographer to make a great work of art; and it’s one party programming, as you code up the lighting control board to actually make the lights come on in the right way a the right time at the right brightness in the right colour.

It is, frankly, a very technical job.

If I don’t know the beam-angle of a profile lantern, there’s no way I can decide if it should be used to make a spot on light on the stage. If I don’t know how to shift the colours in a scroller, there’s no way I can make a light change colour half way through the show.

But more subtly, if I’m uncertain about the command sequence to record a set of lights (called a ‘state’) into the lighting board and I have to think about it every time, there’s a huge percentage of my brain given over to just ‘doing’ rather than ‘creating’.

[/jbox] [jcol/]

And as creativity relies very heavily upon your brain having the capacity to make associations between things, and to be relaxed, you can see how having to concentrate on the ‘how’ of things can very quickly reduce my creativity!

Consider how hard it was to hold an intelligent conversation (or any conversation at all!) when you first learned to drive. Your head was pretty much given over to not hitting things, not die-ing and not killing anyone else, right? Your full brain simply couldn’t handle the extra demands of creating answers.

And now?

Chances are, if you drive, you can do much of the mechanics of driving more or less automatically – you no longer have to concentrate to change gears, for example, which leaves much more of your brain free for the creativity of conversation.

This is one of the main reasons behind me often advising clients to start designing their presentations well away from a computer. No matter how good you are at powerpoint (for example) it’s much easier to slide index cards around on a desk than it is to slide draft slides around on a computer. Pencil and paper are about as simple as it gets, so consider freeing up your brain to be creative by reducing the demands of technology on it.


Tool three – stimulate and distract yourself

In this blog post on the blog for Buffer (the social media app), Leo Widrich goes into some ideas for being more creative.

Examples are things like driving and having a shower. (Not at the same time). The idea is to relax you and give you a dopamine hit (a nice, relaxing shower) or taking up just enough of your judgmental parts of the brain by driving – which means the non-judgmental parts of your brain can come to the fore and do their thing.

One of the key elements of creativity, he reports, is that you need to turn of the parts of your brain that judge/veto/critisize – and a good way of doing this is distraction.

Tool four – capture it

Much of what we know about creativity isn’t that we need to turn it on, but rather that we need to turn other things off, so that our innate, constant creativity can provide solutions. The downside of that is that we often have our creative ideas when we least expect them and, as a direct result, when we’re least prepared to capture them. Capture them or they’ll vanish. Trust me on this: only a fool believes an idea is soooooooo good it can’t be forgotten.

Personally I’ve got Evernote on my iPhone – and I’ve got it permanently open on a capture notebook by default, so that the chances of me missing an idea are considerably reduced. And in case of emergencies I’ve got ‘hey siri’ turned on. “Hey Siri, take a note…” has resulted in some good stuff.

… and some dross too, of course, but that’s the risk you take. You can always filter and reject later.
Your mileage will vary, of course, but the key point is that you need to be able to capture an idea pretty much without effort. Effort increases friction and friction decreases the ability to do your thing.

Tool five – stay fresh

A cup of teaIt’s hard to think creatively when you’re tired. Breaks, refreshments, chocolate all have their place. Don’t be afraid to think to yourself “I’ve hit a brick wall: I’ll stop, do something else for a while and come back to this”. My personal experience is that doing something different is helpful, not just something different. I flip from the creative process of designing a presentation, for example, to the tedium of looking at invoicing and expenses. (No, there is no truth in the idea that my expenses are creative! 🙂 )

Tool six – stop judging

There’s more evidence than I can be bothered to cite here (life’s too short, there’s so much of it!) that one of the big things that kills creativity is the
logic of judging if ideas are good or not
looking at the mechanics of how to make an idea work.

Set aside time to work on those things later. Whatever creativity system you use, use it cleanly and without fearing the consequences: don’t judge yourself. Personally, we use the Disney System for handling this kind of thing, with a modification. The guts of the Disney approach is that you spend time dreaming up solutions, then spend time engineering to make solutions work and only then do you critique those ideas to see if they’re valid and/or useful. It sounds like a potentially huge waste of time, because you might end up engineering an idea that you later find not to be valid in the critic phase, but our experience – and that of anyone we’ve worked with who’s used the Disney Technique – is that it’s time generally well worth it and well spent.

It takes some self-discipline to not leap into Engineer or Critic mode when you’re being the Dreamer, but with a little practice it gets a lot easier.

Tool seven – go bonkers

Bonkers can be fun. All too often we’ve seen people’s presentations limited by being quite like the ones they’ve made in the (recent) past, because that’s all they can think of and their thinking is subconsciously limited. A bonkers, radical approach might be something that breaks the creative log-jam.

For example:

  1. instead of asking yourself how you’d increase take up of an idea at the end of your presentation by 20%, why not try and figure out how you’d approach the task if your aim was to increase take-up by 200%. The sheer ‘desperation’ that this kind of thinking can create often triggers moments of otherwise-unachievable genius!
  2. restrict your resources – instead of allowing yourself complete freedom of how you deliver your presentation, why not ask yourself how you’d deliver it if you couldn’t speak, or to an audience who couldn’t see. At that point you really kick your creativity for using the tools you do have available. What would you do if your presentation could only last three minutes and 15 seconds? What about if you had to do it without using the word “because”? 🙂
    Don’t forget, the aim here isn’t to literally restrict your resources – it’s an exercise to make you consider how you’d better use your other resources and make you more creative with them
  3. reverse your targets! It can sometimes be a challenge to figure out how to improve something – after all, you’ve been working on improving it for what seems like forever and all your ideas have been implemented. But what happens to your creativity if you ask yourself, instead, how to make the situation worse. Have a fun brainstorming session for 20 minutes trying to make sure no one takes up your ideas: what would you do to undermine yourself. The stop, have a cup of tea, and figure out how to do the opposite.

Tool eight – devise, don’t write

We use different parts of our brains (well, technically we use things in different ways too, but it gets unnecessarily complicated to unpack all of that!) when we write to when we speak. It takes a very great deal of experience and skill to write in a way that can be spoken and not sound stilted and boring. Most professional play-writes manage it, but not all: most professions speech-writers don’t but we expect so little of our politicians we applaud them when they’re anything other then awful (sorry – ranting!). A better approach is to try and devise your presentation in some way.

Just try delivering it from scratch or without too much prep. That way, you’re not limited by your technical ability and just pretend you’ve got whatever you need.  After that it’s just a matter of creating what you’ve pretended you’ve got. Slides, props and so on.

That paragraph makes it sound like a one-time deal, but it’s very much not.  Do it over and over and over. Each time you’ll refine your presentation a little and change things. But hopefully each iteration you’ll be changing less and less, until you reach something that’s reasonably stable. That’s the point at which you should have stopped 🙂

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