The Idea Network

The concept of a network of associated items is pretty standard fare in the fields of information processing or systems modeling. This concept has been applied as a method of outlining a presentation, and is summarized below. For more details, see Peter Kenny's book.

Start off with a large sheet of blank paper (or blackboard, etc.). Write a word or two describing the theme of your presentation at the center. Use as few words as possible - they should just be enough to remind you of the essential element or concept. Now write down other concepts, topics, or ideas relating to the central theme. Draw lines between related items. Continue this process until you run out of things to write. Highlight the central theme, then make several copies of your effort. This is the idea network you'll use for preparing the presentation.

The next step is to decide which of these items are most relevant to your presentation's theme. Take one copy of the network and use a different color to highlight those items which seem to be most related to the central theme. Highlight the links between these items, too. Don't try to include all the items in the network! You'll probably find items which only have a tenuous link to the central theme (most often these are near to the periphery of the network), or which are intimate details of the theme - the sort of details only a specialist knows or cares about hearing. These categories of information should be included only after careful consideration, and should be the first items you discard if you find your practice talks are over-long.

Now, put that copy of the network away. Grab a new copy and repeat the process, using a different color and a new strategy. Use different criteria for selecting items, such as choosing items with a historical relation to one another, or those which share interesting features. Repeat this process several times. These are the various versions of the idea network you may use as options for the structure of your presentation.

Lay out all the copies, and look for common features among the various subgroups you've highlighted. Write these items down on index cards, one item to each card. Sort the cards into a sequence that appears to be logical and interesting. Run through the talk once, then sort the cards into a more streamlined sequence. Get rid of any card which no longer fits the new sequence. Run through the talk again, then re-evaluate the card contents and sequence. Finally, go back to the original copy of the network and see if any of those items now may fit your sequence. At this point, you should have a pretty good handle on your presentation.

This, by the way, is a very good strategy for preparing a talk at the last minute. Try as you may to avoid last-minute preparations, this situation may occasionally sneak up on you. Or be thrust upon you .....

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Jeff Radel