Backward Buildup & Organizing Your Talk

by janetkayfetz

In my opinion, the most important part of organizing a talk is knowing clearly the story you want to tell your audience. The next step is sequencing your story — and any visuals you want to include — into a logical progression that fits perfectly within the amount of time you have been allotted for your presentation.

Backward buildup is a way of thinking about your talk from the perspective of what you would like the audience to understand by the time you finish speaking. It is a technique for organizing your story back-to-front. Distributing your content in the backwards direction ensures that your story ends where and when you intend, that each section is balanced and builds to the conclusion, and that the story in its entirety fits within the time you have been allotted. Let’s look at how it works:

1. Story

The first and most important step is to compose a logical story for your audience. Select the precise body of material you want your audience to learn and “know” as a result of attending your talk or panel — include only the content that is directly applicable to this particular talk. Divide your story into the sections that you will cover, like “introduction,” “concept 1,” “concept 2,” “questions and answers,” and so on.

2. Backward Buildup

Working backwards from the end of your talk, assign a chunk of time to each section of the story. Work all the way back to the first minute of the talk. Here is an example of backward buildup for a 30 minute talk –

Section                                                  Time___

6  Questions and Answers                10 minutes

5  Conclusions                                        2 minutes

4  Concept 3                                             5 minutes

3  Concept 2                                             5 minutes

2  Concept 1                                             5 minutes

1  Introduction                                        3 minutes

TOTAL                                                   30 minutes

3. Fine-tuning

As you work through the backward buildup process, you may find that there is not enough time for all of the material you want to cover. Or you may have compressed your 60-minute talk into 50 minutes. Now is the time for fine tuning: Look at your plan from front-to-back as well as from back-to-front and make adjustments so that the sequencing and timing are perfect. Delete non-essential stuff or expand a section or two, and repeat the backward buildup process until you have a time plan that embraces all of the material you want to present. The sequence of topics in each section and the articulation across sections should have a logical flow.

4. Timing

All of the sections, including the question and answer period, must add up to no more than the total number of minutes allotted for your talk. When organizing the timing, you must account for possible technical problems, appropriate anecdotes, and nerves, so leave some breathing room in your plan.

5. Visuals

Now, go back to your story and the timed sections. Ask: “Are there any visuals that will help elucidate this section?” If no, move on and tell that part of the story without visuals — audiences love this approach. If yes, then select only the visuals that promote understanding and inspiration of your audience’s experience. Each visual should be crystal clear and easy to navigate and understand from the point of view of the audience.

Go ahead and give backward buildup a try — and good luck with your presentations!