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November 27, 2006

Content Creation - Top Down or Bottom Up?

I was working on a slide deck for a course, and one of the slides was the "Objectives" one near the beginning. I sent a rough draft out for review and one of my colleagues said that my objectives were a little weak.

Which is true, I was mainly interested in the main content, and viewed the Objectives slide like the table of contents. Not that it WAS the table of contents, just that it's the kind of thing you fill in later, once you have the bulk of the content laid out the way you want. He replied that he had found it was very important to get the objectives correct first, then use that to guide you when you write the presentation.

This sounds right, doesn't it? I mean, you don't start writing the slides before you know the topic, and since the objectives state what the audience will learn, it would seem logical that you would want to know them before you wrote the rest of the deck.

The only problem is that I don't work that way. For example, when I wrote Proudly Serving My Corporate Masters, I started out by brainstorming all the stuff I wanted to talk about. The points I wanted to make, the stories I wanted to tell, the mysteries I wanted to elucidate. There were more than a hundred of these. Then, I worked to collect these together into logical groups, and organized them into chapters with the various bits ordered in such a way as to allow an orderly story to be told. Then I started writing, basically elaborating on each set piece and filling in the connective tissue as needed.

If you've read the book, you might say that it does jump back and forth a bit too much, with no over-arching theme except "Here are some thoughts about Microsoft." When I initially organized the pieces I wound up with 6 chapters, which I later split into 17 (one of those got cut later), and you can see where the seams are. But, certainly, you would not think that there were 100+ different sections of the book; I was able to knit most of my original brainstorming together in a reasonably cohesive way.

I do presentations the same way. For my recent interviewing presentation, I had a bunch of things I wanted to talk about. I got them all down on (electronic) paper, then looked for a through line so I could tell a story. In the end I wound up with 2 sections plus a "miscellaneous topics" section, so I didn't do a perfect job of this. But certainly it was only after I had this all organized that I could go back and write the objectives. And in fact for that talk I wound up not having the objectives laid out as such, instead I just had a "What this talk will cover" slide--but even that I would not have been able to write before I had the rest done.

I was actually inspired in this creation method by an interview I read with the band Metallica. They said that they would collect riffs--little bits of music--as they were touring and whatnot. Then, when it came time to write songs, they would listen to all the riffs, decides which ones went well together, and piece them into a song. Metallica in recent years has been coming out with "normal" songs, but if you go back and listen to their pre-"Black Album" phase, you will recognize this; the songs dart around, switch tempo, wander into the weeds for a while, then abruptly resurface for one more charge through the chorus ("Frayed Edge of Sanity" is a good example of this, as a bonus it has that excellent "Wizard of Oz" sample). After reading this, I figured I could do it that way also.

Now, I'm not talking about just blindly writing with no goal in mind. For the interviewing talk, I knew that the overall audience goal would be becoming a better interviewer. Although, the reason I gave a talk on interviewing was because I had been noodling around in my head on the topic. So perhaps even that was somewhat bottom-up. But overall I would say that I start with a very high-level idea, jump into the details, and only later does the mid-level organization emerge.

You could, of course, draw an analogy to how software is designed. One thing Microsoft has been pushing is that our software releases have a more top-down plan: that each release have a value proposition, essentially the 10-second "why should I buy this" pitch for customers. So, which comes first, the proposition or the value?

I would suspect that in the past, to the extent that these have been done, the details have come first. That is, for some version of Windows there has been one team doing something with USB device support and another team doing something with web publishing and another team doing something with graphics and another team doing something with some partner companies, and out of that you can brew up a scenario involving publishing your digital camera pictures, which can then become part of your value proposition.

I don't know if this is the right way, or if the right way for a presentation is the same as the right way for a large software product. Maybe my presentations should be entirely top-down, and maybe our software should also. But for the moment, I'm sticking with my top-bottom-middle spiral.

Posted by AdamBa at November 27, 2006 12:35 PM

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