Article Category: Speechwriting

How to Sequence Your Presentation


How to Sequence Your Presentation

There are many ways to organize your presentation. The choices you make seriously impact the success of your presentation.

If you order your material in an intuitive manner that your audience can readily understand, they are more likely to be persuaded.

If you order your material in an awkward manner, your audience will struggle to understand, and they will resist being persuaded by your message.

Given the criticality of your presentation sequence, how do you choose the right one for your topic and your audience?

In this article, we:

  • survey the available sequence types,
  • give examples of presentations which fit each scheme, and
  • discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Simple Sequences

Suppose you have a number of points you would like to discuss. You can’t discuss them all at the same time, so you have to decide which goes first, which goes second, … and which goes last.

If you organize them into a single list (i.e. no sub-lists, no hierarchy), then you have created a simple sequence. There are several simple sequences available to you, including:

  • Chronological sequence
  • Step-by-step sequence
  • Spatial sequence
  • Paired sequence
  • Topical sequence
  • Perspective-based sequence
  • Sort-by-property sequence

Each of these simple sequences is discussed below.

1. Chronological Sequence

In a chronological sequence, items are ordered according to the date or time they occurred. Examples of presentations where a chronological sequence may apply:

  • Key events in the War of 1812
  • A day in the life of an E.R. doctor
  • Development stages during a baby’s first year
  • The past, present, and future of aviation safety

Many scientific presentations follow a loose chronological sequence to recap the steps undertaken in an experiment:

  1. Background
  2. Hypothesis
  3. Experimental methods
  4. Data
  5. Analysis and discussion
  6. Conclusions

Advantages: A chronological sequence is easy to apply. Because most stories (parables, novels, movies) follow this pattern, it is a familiar pattern for audiences, and is thus quite easy to follow.

Disadvantages: Chronological sequence encourages “and-then” syndrome (“… and then… and then… and then… and then…”). It can feel like a long, tiring sequence, and may make it more difficult to highlight key takeaways.

2. Step-by-step Sequence

In a step-by-step sequence, items are organized according to their order within a process. Examples of presentations where a step-by-step sequence may apply:

  • How to upgrade financial management software
  • How to stuff and cook a turkey
  • How to change a flat tire

Advantages: Easy to apply, and easy to follow. Particularly effective for any type of “how to” presentation.

Disadvantages: None, provided that the nature of the presentation is a good match for this sequence type.

3. Spatial Sequence

The most common type of spatial sequences in presentations are those which organize items by geography. Examples of presentations which might use a geographic sequence are:

  • Roadside attractions along the Oregon coast
  • Ukrainian settlements throughout Canada from 1891 to 1914
  • Local, regional, and national impact of hosting the Olympics

But spatial sequences do not always correspond to geography. Spatial sequences can also sequence the connected parts of a whole. Example presentations include:

  • Functions of different parts of a plant (roots, stem, branches, leaves, fruit)
  • How to design an ergonomic office/workspace (computer, desktop, seating, storage)
  • Human nervous system (brain, spinal cord, nerves)

Advantages: Emphasizes the spatial relationships between your items. This can lead to a stronger understanding of the whole. Audiences can easily visualize how items “fit” together, particularly if you provide a map, diagram, or scale model.

Disadvantages: A spatial sequence is sometimes used even though the spatial dimension is meaningless to the content. Avoid this trap.

4. Paired Sequences

Paired sequences are short — only two items — but are quite common due to our propensity to compare and contrast.

There are a number of paired (or binary) sequences:

  • Advantages vs. Disadvantages (Costs vs Benefits; Pros vs. Cons)
    • e.g. Proposal to replace a paper-based process with an electronic one
  • Problem vs. Solution
    • e.g. Strategy to recapture shrinking market share
  • Cause vs. Effect
    • e.g. Impact of chemical processing plant on local water supply

Advantages: Natural pairings are easy to understand, and audiences expect that one will follow the other. Using a paired sequence generates anticipation and suspense.

Disadvantages: The binary nature of the paired sequence may not be flexible enough to handle complex real-world topics. The sequence suggests simplicity which may not be real. (It suggests a black-and-white situation, even though there may be fifty shades of grey.) For example, how do you handle a factor that is neither a cost nor a benefit? How do you handle a factor that is both a cost and a benefit?

There are many ways to organize your presentation. The choices you make seriously impact your success.

5. Topical Sequences

When all else fails, you can usually apply a topical sequence. Examples of presentations where a topical sequence may apply:

  • Presenting a project plan (budget, schedule, staffing, testing)
  • Unveiling new corporate strategy and discussing the impact on different stakeholders (marketing, sales, manufacturing, suppliers, customers)
  • School dress code presentation (code details, common violations, enforcement, uniform costs)

Advantages: Can be applied in almost any presentation, even when chronological, spatial, or other sequences are not relevant. Because of this, it is the most common sequence pattern.

Disadvantages: Unlike previous patterns covered, topical patterns are not intuitive. By their nature, topical sequences are more abstract. Audiences can easily get lost, and may have difficulty seeing how the sequence items relate. It’s also easy for a presenter to “miss” an important topic. For these reasons, a topical sequence is generally weaker than other options.

6. Perspective-based Sequences

A perspective-based sequence is a little like a topical sequence turned inside out. Instead of looking at different aspects of the main issue, a perspective-based sequence involves investigating some entity through a series of different lenses.

For example, consider a proposal to adopt a corporate initiative on telecommuting. One way to sequence your presentation would be to consider the impact of the policy from several perspectives:

  • From the perspective of telecommuting employees
  • From the perspective of office-based employees
  • From the perspective of managers
  • From the perspective of IT
  • From the perspective of Accounting

Advantages: Good for persuasive presentations when you encounter resistance, if you can correctly address the perspectives of each of your key stakeholders. Audience analysis is key!

Disadvantages: Can be repetitive (boring) if there is a great deal of topical overlap as you consider each of the perspectives.

7. Sort-by-property Sequences

Sort-by-property sequences are special topical sequences which allow a presenter to choose one property (or dimension) of their material and organize along that property (or dimension). You can choose any quality, as long as you can evaluate each item in your list e.g. importance, brightness, size, speed, popularity, shape, concreteness.

Once you choose the property, you then sequence your items in an appropriate order, often ascending or descending. For example:

  • Smallest to largest
  • Most understood to least understood
  • Most concrete to most abstract (specific to general)
  • Least impactful to most impactful

The optimal sort order may depend on the audience and the goals of the presentation. For example:

  • Most important to least important
    • Executive presentations often follow a sequence which begins with the most important item (what is being proposed?), and then follows with less important details (analysis, data, methods).
  • Least important to most important
    • Conference keynote addresses often follow a sequence which begins with small examples and points, progressively building to larger and larger points, and ending with a climax.

Advantages: Easy for an audience to follow and predict. Once you set the pattern with the first two elements, audience members will recognize it and use it to assess subsequent items.

Disadvantages: Avoid choosing a meaningless dimension on which to organize:

  • If discussing hockey players, it would be meaningless to sequence by favorite music style.
  • If discussing Academy Award winning actresses, it would be meaningless to sequence by hair color or breast size.
  • An alphabetical sequence is rarely meaningful… no matter what your topic.

Compound and Nested Sequences

The sequences discussed so far are all simple sequences. For a very short presentation, you may be able to organize all of your material using just one these sequences.

As your presentation grows longer, you may split it into distinct parts, and choose a different sequence to present each part, one after the other. This is a compound sequence.

As the complexity of your presentation grows, simple and compound sequences may not be flexible enough. You may use one type of sequence to organize your blocks at the top level, and a different type of sequence to organize the sub-blocks at a lower level. This is a nested sequence.

For example, suppose your presentation focuses on Scandinavian culture. You might choose to organize first by a topical sequence: food, music, and literature. Then, within each of these topics, you could nest a geographic sequence:  Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Your overall outline would be:

  • Introduction
  • Food
    • Denmark
    • Norway
    • Sweden
  • Music
    • Denmark
    • Norway
    • Sweden
  • Literature
    • Denmark
    • Norway
    • Sweden
  • Conclusion

Basic sequences can be combined in a multitude of ways, resulting in many forms of the compound sequence and nested sequence.

Bonus…

Did you notice the sequencing pattern used in this article?

It’s a nested sequence.

  • My primary organization is a sorted property sequence (dimension = complexity). I started with the simplest sequences (chronological, step-by-step, spatial) and ended with the most complex sequences.
  • Within each item, I used a topical sequence (definition, examples, advantages, disadvantages), which itself nested a paired sequence.

What do you think?

What sequences do you use most often in your presentations? Which sequences do you see others use well? Which are most often abused?

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Comments icon3 Comments

  1. Susan says:

    When explaining the disadvantages of Sequence #3 Spatial, your article leaves me wondering in what example could it be “meaningless to the content.” I am cautioned to “Avoid this trap.” Please, explain further. Thank you. Susan

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      Thanks for your question. I’m sorry that my original explanation wasn’t clear enough.

      Spatial sequences are very useful when your points have a strong, spatial relationship to one another. By arranging them spatially, you help your audience to see these spatial connections. Consider this topic: “roadside attractions along the Oregon coast”. Organizing this material spatially provides a useful framework for the audience, encouraging them to travel north-to-south (or vice versa) on a virtual road trip along the coast as you speak.

      On the other hand, forcing a spatial sequence on material when there is no meaningful spatial relationship is inappropriate.

      • In a speech discussing influential actresses, I might organize by genre (drama, comedy, action), or time period (the 50’s, the 70’s, the 2000’s). It would probably be meaningless to organize them by the country or state in which they were born.
      • When describing how to stuff and cook a turkey, a step-by-step sequence is clearly the most appropriate. Organizing spatially (steps performed on the counter, steps performed in the sink, steps performed in the oven) would be meaningless because the steps would get all jumbled up and out of their natural order.
  2. Anwar Qaradaghi says:

    I like it. It is good. It has much that is of good use for me. You are obviously a learned man in this field. Please keep it up. I will look forward to more of these useful hints and wise guidance.
    With best regards.

    AQ, MBA, UK

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