Content Development: Crafting a Big Idea

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Previously on Tweak Your Slides, I covered the basics of idea creation and idea generation. Once you have engaged in divergent and convergent thinking and narrowed your topic choices down to the one topic that best fits in with your experience, your passions, and your audience’s needs, it’s time to  analyze your audience, and then develop a central theme, thesis, or big idea to guide the presentation development process.

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What is a big idea?

Whether you call it a thesis, controlling idea, theme, or main point, a strong persuasive presentation begins with a clearly articulated and assertive big idea. The big idea is what forms the basis for the rest of the presentation. Without a clear sense of what your purpose is in presenting your logic, emotional points, and credibility, your presentation flounders and your audience remains confused and unsure. Presentation expert Nancy Duarte discusses a big idea in Chapter 4 of her second book, Resonate“a big idea is that one key message you want to communicate. It contains the impetus that compels the audience to set a new course with a new compass heading” (Source). So, a big idea includes not only the core of a presentation’s purpose, but it also contains the exigency or necessity of that message as it relates to the audience. Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick and creators of the SUCCESs acronym (Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories) refer to this as the core of the message. The process of brainstorming and then drafting a big idea is known as “finding the core,” which “means stripping an idea down to its most critical essence” (Source). “Finding the core” is central to crafting a successful “sticky” message:

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This process, however, does not mean that a big idea needs to be dumbed down. The Heath brothers make a clear distinction between simple and simplistic. A strong big idea is about “elegance and prioritization, not about dumbing down” (Source).

What makes for a strong big idea?

In addition to ensuring a big idea is simple, elegant, and essential, Duarte provides three (really four) basic keys to crafting a strong big idea (Source). A big idea should:

1. Communicate your unique POV on a topic

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Instead of simply presenting a topic: “ways to go green”, a strong big idea provides the presenter’s unique point of view on the general topic (for instance, “using reusable bags can save the environment”). The idea doesn’t have to be outrageous to be interesting, merely unique and personal. This is so often why choosing a topic you already know lots about and that really matters to you is a good starting point for idea creation. It is easier to communicate a unique perspective on a topic you know well.

2. Convey what’s at stake, or, pass the “so what?” test

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So, it’s great that you have a unique perspective, but why should your audience care about that perspective? The second important piece to crafting a strong big idea is what’s at stake aka necessity aka exigency aka so what? For your audience to truly adopt a perspective on a topic, they have to understand how their participation in your perspective is needed, what could be lost or gained if your perspective is put into action, and why they should act in the first place. If we return to our previous topic, what does the audience gain by using reusable bags? what happens if they don’t? why does their choice matter?

3. Be a complete sentence

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If we think of the first two parts of a big idea as an equation or formula, the third is the solution, the two parts joined and expressed as one simple, complete thought. Duarte suggests that the pronoun “you” be part of this construct. Doing this helps you ensure that the big idea is for the audience. When we take the first two pieces of of our sample big idea above, we can formulate our core, our big idea:

Part One:

I want you to use reusable bags instead of plastic bags.

Part Two:

Reusable bags are better for the environment because they reduce the number of plastic bags produced and used; they also save time and strain when shopping (4 plastic to 1 reusable).

The resulting big idea combines parts one and two into one complete sentence.

The resulting big idea combines parts one and two into one complete sentence.

One final important aspect of a strong big idea is emotion. According to Duarte, “[ultimately], there are only two emotions–pleasure and pain. A truly persuasive presentation plays on those emotions” to either increase pain and lower pleasure if the audience does not adopt the perspective, or to increase pleasure and lower pain if the audience adopts the big idea (Source).

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In the next content development series, we’ll explore the acronym SUCCESs further and discuss how it relates to creating strong persuasive content.

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One thought on “Content Development: Crafting a Big Idea

  1. […] to us that can help us understand how to create content that our audience will retain including the Made to Stick model I’ve previously discussed and John Medina’s brilliant Brain Rules. In this introductory video to the Brain Rules […]

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