Nine puzzling presentation insights

In the holidays our family usually spent at least a bit of time building puzzles. It was great fun and I think we can learn some lessons from puzzle building experiences that we can apply to our presentations. What possibly can a puzzle and a presentation hold in common? After thinking about it I came up with nine…

1. GIVE THE BIG PICTURE FIRST! Ever tried building a puzzle without a box with a picture on it? It certainly is more difficult than when you have the picture at hand. (Do you know the wasgij puzzles? The picture on the box is what a person in the actual puzzle see and not the picture that you are building – great fun, but definitely more difficult than normal) Your presentation needs to make the “big picture”, the value proposition of your talk clear, upfront, otherwise you may just lose your audience.

2. BUILD THE OUTLINE. What do most people do when building a jigsaw puzzle? Start with the frame, each piece has a straight edge (or two for the corners) and is much easier then to figure out where the rest fits.  A presentation must also be framed; at the macro-level consisting of a beginning, a middle and an end.

3. COLLECT RELATED PIECES. We typically sort jigsaw pieces according to some common trait like the dominant color. When designing presentations one needs to collect all the material that could be necessary, sorted and the pieces that don’t have a place be discarded for this presentation. In a way this corresponds to having multiple puzzles available, some pieces will just not be useful in the current puzzle.

4. FIND KEY PIECES Once one starts looking at a puzzle it usually become clear that some pieces are more easily identified than others. These pieces can be compared to what Nancy Duarte terms STAR moments. Finding them gives solid anchor points for other pieces.

5. NOT EVERY PIECE WILL FIT FROM THE START. Sometimes the first puzzle piece that you try in a space will not fit; in fact, most of the time it will not. when you design a presentation you must be willing to try different things, the first try is unlikely to be the best fit. Finding the pieces that join seemingly unrelated  pieces together often gives this kind of problem.  Presentations are no different, working extra hard to join things together, to find the flow is definitely worth the effort as it takes the emphasis away from the individual clumps and ensuring that the whole becomes better.


Building all over does not work; typically one would build around a key feature, finding as many pieces of a similar colour, pattern or other characteristic. We must do the same in our presentation preparation: fine tune it piece by piece. Of course doing so one must constantly keep an eye on the big picture, otherwise you may find yourself looking for a piece which already are used elsewhere.

7. HOW MUCH TIME TO YOU HAVE? just like you would not choose a 1000 piece puzzle if you only have a couple of hours, so you must ask yourself how much time you have available for your presentation. Do not give the audience a puzzle that’s too complex for the allotted time. Amazingly a small 99 piece puzzle can be just as much fun to build like a 2000 piece; in fact completing the 99 piece is much more fulfilling than getting the 2000 piece 5% complete.

8. BEST EFFORTS ARE TEAM EFFORTS. An extra pair of eyes help. Often when I feel stuck, a family member will come past, look at the pieces and quickly find a missing piece or two. Similarly, get others to help you with your presentation; do dry runs, get feedback.

9. FUZZY PIECES BUILD DIFFICULT. Which parts of the puzzle builds the most difficult? For me it definitely are the parts like skies, grass and bushes, especially where these do not have well-defined features such as clouds and visible twigs. For your presentation make sure that you have a clear vision, that you show the clear parts of the picture. The parts that are fuzzy for you will be fuzzy to the audience as well.

So next time you need to prepare a presentation, imagine you are building a puzzle, because for the audience you are.


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