4 Reasons brainstorming may sabotage your presentation

by Olivia Mitchell

Many people plan a presentation by brainstorming. I don’t recommend it. Brainstorming is an attempt to capture everything you know on a particular topic. That’s likely to overwhelm your audience.

Here’s an example of a brainstorm for a presentation on financial planning to small business-owners.

brainstorm-mediumBrainstorming to prepare a presentation leads to many problems:

1. You’re likely to end up having too much information in your presentation

In the brainstorm above, there are heaps of great points and nuggets of information that small business owners might find useful. It’s going to be difficult to decide which to include and which to discard. But if the presenter attempts to cover all these points, he’ll overload his audience with information. The more you include, the less your audience will remember.

2. You’re setting yourself up for a lot of editing work

So you realise that you need to cut down on all the points you’ve generated through brainstorming. It’s going to take a lot of time and effort to do that editing. You’ll have spent time brainstorming points, only to then spend time editing them out. Wasted time.

3. You risk not being able to find a focus for your presentation

All the points and ideas that you generate during brainstorming clutter up your thinking. In the brainstorm above, there are so many areas of interest that’s it’s going to be difficult to decide what should be the focus of the presentation. And a tight focus is the secret of an effective presentation.

4. You may end up with unrelated points in your presentation

In an effective presentation each point contributes to the focus of the presentation and logically follows from what has been before. That’s difficult to achieve if you’ve generated a whole heap of unrelated points through your brainstorming.

An effective way to prepare a presentation

A key skill in planning an effective presentation is to drastically limit the amount of information you include. So instead of brainstorming as your first step in planning your presentation, decide on what is the one thing you want your audience to remember from your presentation.

The brutal truth is this:

Your audience is likely to remember only one thing from your presentation

Don’t leave what they remember up to chance. You decide what the one thing will be.

In the financial planning presentation, the presenter decided that the one thing they wanted people to remember was that small business owners need to save for their retirement and not rely on their business to fund their retirement.

Craft this into a Key Message

The one thing should be crafted into a clear and memorable Key Message . It should be easy for you to say and easy for your audience to grasp and remember. Here’s the key message for the financial planning presentation:

Your business is not your superannuation policy

So don’t brainstorm. Work out your Key Message – and then develop the rest of your presentation to support that Key Message. Preparing your presentation in this way, will save you time and effort and you’ll deliver a message your audience will remember.

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeff August 8, 2008 at 2:08 pm

Why not come up with your key message and then use brain storming to come up with your supporting material? You show a mind map in your post. Mind mapping is a great tool for exploring a topic. They are particularly helpful when it comes to Q&A.



Olivia Mitchell August 8, 2008 at 2:28 pm

Hi Jeff

Thanks for your comment. Yes, you could do it that way. I think it depends how familiar you are with the topic. In the area of developing business presentations – which is what I specialise in helping people with – most people already have all the information they need on the topic at their fingertips. For them, I don’t think it’s necessary to do a mind map.

If you’re developing a Toastmasters speech on a topic you’re not so familiar with, it may be useful to do a mindmap.

Once you’ve identified and crafted your Key Message my suggestion is to ask yourself “What will my audience want to know”. I wrote a post about this that you can find here http://www.speakingaboutpresenting.com/content/answer-your-audiences-questions/ .



Michael Deutch November 27, 2008 at 6:24 am

Hi Olivia,
I’m new to your blog, but excited to see your content as I develop many presentations. I agree with your conclusion but disagree with some of your supporting points. I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘brainstorming’ recently as most of our users (MIndjet MindManager) say they ‘brainstorm’ with our software. In many cases, people use the term to describe the process of jotting down and visualizing their thoughts and ideas. While some people do use brainstorming to capture everything they know, many use it for specific purposes to aid their thinking processes. It can be applied to generate new ideas and innovative ways to look at problems or situations that are commonly overlooked. Or, you could brainstorm and capture what you think your audience really cares about, what they want to hear or what their preconceptions might be. It can also be performed with a variety of software apps (Mindjet or others) that make managing information fast and easy so you’re not spending valuable time editing. A big benefit that we hear often for visualizing your thoughts in MindManager is the greater clarity of thinking and the ability to see the big picture. They map out their key point(s) and then break them into supporting points. The visual hierarchy of information creates implied priorities which can be reorganized by simply dragging and dropping (software, in this case, is much easier than using a whiteboard or paper). Overall, the process of brainstorming and mapping helps many see the big picture and reorganize content into cohesive points. I agree many try to make too many points! I look forward to checking out your other posts as I’m always searching for great info on making great presentations.


Olivia Mitchell November 27, 2008 at 7:48 am

Hi Michael, thank you for your thoughts – I think you bring up an important distinction – there is a difference between brainstorming and mindmapping. I’ve been using the terms somewhat interchangeably – which isn’t very useful. So from what you’ve said above:
Brainstorming – generating new ideas, connections and thoughts by rapidly and uncritically writing down everything you can think of on the topic.
Mindmapping – capturing your current thoughts and ideas on a topic.

I don’t recommend brainstorming when you’re planning a presentation because most of the time you don’t need new ideas – you already know what you need to know.

On the other hand I can see that mindmapping can be useful. Once you’ve captured your thoughts you can then choose what to include and then organise them into a logical flow.


Mariya Shall December 6, 2008 at 5:06 am

This is good point Olivia. Brainstorming is only first step to prepare for a presentation. Good presentation is a focused, structured and clear. Brainstorming is like turning the soil before you plant the seed – the message. Thank you for your good point.


Olivia Mitchell December 6, 2008 at 6:58 am

Hi Mariya

Thank you for your comment. I agree with you on the criteria for an effective presentation. Most of the time, if you know your topic well – you shouldn’t need to brainstorm – in order to create a clear and focused presentation. Olivia


Phemey Pon December 14, 2008 at 7:19 am

Hi Olivia, A very good piece of advise. Unconsciously, I have been doing what you say. You also remind me the most important job for preparing a presentation is to craft a clear and memorable Key Message. Thank you.


Olivia Mitchell December 14, 2008 at 7:22 am

Hi Phemey Pon, Glad its been useful. Olivia


James Schneider February 26, 2009 at 6:38 am

Hi Olivia,

I agree with your comments on ‘brainstorming’ but only because the problem is that people stop with the first step. I use the Disney developed adaptation of brainstorming called “Storyboarding” and it’s the second step of the process (Critical Phase) that is key to successful brainstorming. You have to take the ideas you generated and evaluate and rank them as part of a critical process. This allows you to combine similar ideas to remove some of the clutter in your thinking and then when you’ve done your ranking you can pick the top ideas and limit that number to what will reasonably fit into the time allotted. Hint: It’s always fewer than you think!

I also do another screen of the ideas by asking, “Which have the strongest Unique factor?” and “Which have the stongest Romance factor?” This process helps me focus on ideas that will keep my presentation interesting and the audience involved.

Brainstorming done well can be an asset. Done poorly or partially it can indeed be an ineffective tool. Enjoyed your post.


Mohit Chhabra March 10, 2009 at 6:14 am

Hi Olivia:
I am a great fan of your writing. And tips too!

But I disagree with your notion about a brainstorm to piece together the content for a presentation.

That’s the whole idea of brainstorm/mindmap. Articulate what you know and THEN balance it with the needs of an audience. Its the ability to balance the sheer expanse of content and knowledge about a subject with the audience needs that differentiates good speakers from bad.


Olivia Mitchell March 10, 2009 at 7:26 am

Hi Mohit
Thank you for your lovely words about my writing – it’s much appreciated.

With regard to your comment – I think there’s a difference between a brainstorm and a mindmap.

A brainstorm is when you try and generate new ideas. A mindmap helps you visually organise what you already know.

in this article, I’m advocating against brainstorming when you’re preparing a presentation (it’s useful in other areas). That’s because, in most cases, our job when preparing a presentation is to cut stuff from the presentation – and so generating new ideas is the opposite of what you need to do.

A mindmap can be useful and if it works for you that’s great. But I don’t think it’s a necessary step in preparing a presentation. My approach is to set up “containers” for my content based on what I think my audience will want to know, and then drop my content into those containers. It’s quick and focused and means I don’t have to spend time editing lots of material.


Steve Bent November 6, 2009 at 12:21 pm


I actually totally agree with your original point…whether brainstorming or mind mapping, I tend to end up with plenty of editing to do…!

My issue is that it seems in order to determine my key message I have to use some sort of tool (usually mindmapping) to get some ideas down AND THEN figure out the key message.

Any tips on determining the key message more quickly??


Steve Bent November 6, 2009 at 12:24 pm

…to add to my original comment:

I usually end up with something like your picture….but seem to require that to determine the “clever” key message.

I notice that your key message “..superannuation..” is not within the mindmap…so where does it come from?

I seem to need the topic info in front of me to determine a quirky/interesting/clever/catchy key message. Do you?


Olivia Mitchell November 8, 2009 at 2:32 pm

Hi Steve

Thank you for both your comments. They’ve got me thinking and I will make it a topic for a blog post.

I normally work with people in the context of a course of 6-12 people. We lead them through our step-by-step process of designing a presentation. We always start with working out the key message. It can be a bit of a struggle at first, but within 5 to 10 minutes every person has their key message. It may not be the final version and may need a bit of refining, but they’ve got something to work with. So what I’m wondering is whether, if you weren’t given any choice but to come up with a key message in 5 minutes, you would be able to do it?



Steve Bent November 8, 2009 at 10:50 pm

Thanks Olivia,

Look forward to your next posts!

I’ve been mulling this over in context of a presentation I gave a few months back, which is when I first stumbled on your excellent site & guide.

After lots of mindmap brainstorming, and even starting to write using your guide, that’s when I had the Eureka moment of the key message for that particular presentation. Then all previous thoughts, notes and parts of the presentation were easy to classify in terms of how relevant they were, and which step they fell into (if any).

I would say that I normally have a eureka moment at some point when when designing a presentation (sometimes late in the process!!)

So to answer your question, I would say yes, I’m sure I could come up with a key message. Just wondering if I still may have a change of heart half way through….

Seems I have topic commitment issues…!


Olivia Mitchell November 9, 2009 at 7:42 pm

Hi Steve

I love that phrase “topic commitment issues” – can I use that in the blog post I’m writing to address some of the issues you’ve raised?



Steve Bent November 9, 2009 at 8:25 pm

Heh heh – of course!

A little bit of kudos to me ;-) , but more importantly it sounds like the blog post might be super tailored to me (and people in my situation!)

Olivia Mitchell November 11, 2009 at 11:40 am

Hi Steve

I’ve now published that post – written just for you :-) .

chantal January 17, 2010 at 10:15 am

Hi Olivia,

This is a very interesting subject, and will make me look again when I am presenting.
One quick question – I am doing a “Pecha Kucha” session (google it!) which is 20 slide for 20 seconds each, so somewhat scatter gun/random approach – any ideas for that!

All good wishes and thank you so much for all your insight and debate



Olivia Mitchell January 17, 2010 at 10:51 am

Hi Chantal

Take a look at my post on Pecha Kucha http://www.speakingaboutpresenting.com/presentation-skills/pecha-kucha-presentation/

As you’ll see I disagree that the Pecha Kucha format automatically leads to a scatter gun or random approach – although it is easy to fall into that trap. Working on your theme and outline before you design your slides is critical to avoid this.

All the best for your presentation.


Ethan Rotman July 19, 2010 at 3:39 pm

Hi there.

This is a good read and got me thinking. I rarely use brainstorming during my preparation, however, i disagree with the blanket statement that it is not a good idea. Your points are well taken, it can lead to info overload if done improperly.

Knowing my topic and my objective, it is possible to use brainstorming to find the elements i MAY include. Brainstorming is a thought dump. if one stops at the point, then you are correct, the talk will be overloaded. However, if one takes time to then EDIT and ORGANIzE their thoughts, it can be a very useful process.

i do congratulate you – you got your readers thinking and speaking.


Kevin Kane December 7, 2010 at 6:01 am

Wow, there a lot of mind-mapping defenders here. :)

I’ve been brainstorming and mind-mapping before I make my presentations, but then it was taking me forever to choose my topic and a few points to discuss.

But for my most recent presentation, I used Olivia’s guide to making a PowerPoint presentation. It helped me quickly decide on a key message. Then I looked for three points that would most persuade my audience to act on my key message.

In retrospect, I didn’t need to do all that brainstorming and mind-mapping: I had pages and pages of “research and brainstorming notes and maps” for a mere seven-minute talk!

I learned a lot during this research stage — but did I use my time efficiently? Probably not. And this time-consuming approach would have killed me if I needed to write this presentation on a tight deadline.

Next time, I’m going to try Olivia’s approach: start by crafting your key message, and then answer your audience’s three questions about it.

I think it will make me faster and more focused.


Olivia Mitchell December 7, 2010 at 10:33 am

Hi Kevin
Your experience about overdoing research is one that many people suffer from when preparing their presentations. And that’s what I want to save people from. Yes, you need to do good thinking and planning to create an effective presentation, but you don’t need to spend hours and hours on research.


Mike March 15, 2012 at 1:59 pm

Hi Olivia,

I’ve just added a “brainstorming” module to an intermediate presentation training. I found it helps logically oriented people to differentiate the useful information from the useless. It also gives them ideas on how to conceptualize their topic and find ways to connect to their audience. In the financial planning example above it might help a presenter choose which point/points are most useful per audience.

I do understand what you mean by brainstorming overloading a presenter’s mind and how a presenter may spend more time trying to remember what to say than they do connecting their content to the audience.

- Mike


Olivia Mitchell March 15, 2012 at 7:03 pm

Hi Mike

If it works for the presenter and for their audience, then that’s great. Go well with your training.


Les April 11, 2012 at 7:08 am

Excellent information, I found some new and some ideas I’d forgotten.
So I included your discussion in my Pearltrees here. http://pear.ly/jQLOC there are some other pages on brainstorming. I find pearltrees an excellent way to organize my favs list and connect with people of similar interest. There are about 7,000 pages organized under different topics in a graphical presentation. The browser favorites never worked well for me, after 2 or 300 favs I would loose track of where things were. The pearls have allowed me to easily organize things like a mindmap, maybe faster. I once tried to mindmap favs, never got it figured out. Pearling seems to work, I have 2 pearltrees one which I share favs with over 60 others as team members and one separate that I use just to mindmap ideas, and test new things. It’s just a free app that I find useful. You might find it interesting since it’s close to both mindmapping and brainstorming put together.


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