October 11, 2019 ~ 4 min read

Start with your conclusion

Weekly TipsSpeakingWriting

Have you ever had to do some research, an analysis, or a post-mortem and present your conclusions?

It's super tempting to structure your presentation to take your audience through the same journey you traveled.

Show them the pieces of evidence, one by one. Build up from the evidence to bigger picture ideas. And bring them to a resounding close with the your conclusion.

There's just one problem with this: It doesn't work.

Instead, lead with your conclusion. Go top down, from a concise conclusion, to a set of bigger picture ideas supporting it, and only then down into the nitty gritty details.

Why Bottom Up Doesn't Work In Communication

There are 2 main reasons why a bottom up doesn't work well when you're presenting your findings: People have limited working memory, and they lack context.

1. Limited Working Memory.

People can only hold a few things in their working memory at once. You likely spent hours, days, or even weeks putting together the pieces of your research and analysis, painstakingly documenting and structuring pieces in your head.

Your audience has a few minutes, or at most a few hours, to understand the same thing. If you try to go from the bottom up they will struggle to hold it all into their head and make sense of it, leading to confusion and lack of comprehension.

To enable them to understand, you need to create the structure first, and then layer in the details. That way as you lay out your evidence, they can consider each piece only in the context of the place it belongs in the structure. This lets you still present all of the information without overwhelming working memory.

2. Lack of Context

Not everyone has the same background, context, and expertise that you do. In fact, if you were asked to do a particular post-mortem or piece of research, it is almost certainly because of your experience and perspective.

As a result, you are able to draw more informed conclusions and draw on experience that your audience likely doesn't have.

I can remember a number of times when I carefully walked through the evidence that to me clearly indicated one answer, only to find that the executive I was speaking to had no idea of what conclusion it was pointing to.

The missing details? Typically some sort of context that allowed the evidence to give me more information than it did them.

By leading with your conclusion and moving from the top down, you help your audience develop the context so that by the time they are looking at the evidence, they're able to make sense of it.

Conclusions Create Questions, Sub-points create answers

One way to think about this is that you are leading your audience to asking the right questions. When you state a strong conclusion, that prompts your audience to ask a question.

For example, I led this piece with the conclusion that "Bottom-up presentations don't work. Lead with your conclusion." This implicitly caused you to ask the question "Why don't bottom-up presentations work?"

The very next section started explaining why they don't work. It gave you two big picture reasons: limited working memory and lack of context. Each of those also creates a question - why do limited working memory or lack of context matter for how you should structure your presentation? At this point we finally got down into the bottom level of evidence.

Had I started instead from that bottom level, it would have been much harder to see how everything fit together.

Bonus: some audiences (especially many executives) will only care about your conclusion. By starting with it, you allow them to short-circuit the process and get on to the next thing they care about faster.

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Kevin Ball

Hi, I'm Kevin Ball (alias KBall). I'm a software engineer turned trainer and coach focused on communication and leadership skills. You can follow me on Twitter, or check out my software-focused work at Zendev.com.