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Presenters: Let your audience vote to choose your topic order

Some presentations cover a series of topics that don’t need to be taken in any particular order.  When that’s the case, the audience will ap­pre­ci­ate being able to vote for the order in which the speaker talks about the topics.

I’ve used the voting procedure below in a talk on startup law that I’ve done for several years for the busi­ness schools at Rice University and the University of Hous­ton. And just the other day I used the voting procedure in a pres­en­ta­tion on risk man­age­­ment as part of a one-day course on IP licen­sing basics for the Hous­ton chap­ter of the Licen­sing Execu­tives Society USA/Canada. Hesam Panahi, a faculty member at the Rice Uni­versity business school, de­scribes this voting procedure to his students as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” ap­proach, after the children’s gamebook series; the students usual­ly respond with chuckles of recognition.

(Incidentally, I’m not the first to think of this approach to doing presentations, as a Google search confirms.)

Show a slide with a menu of topics

First, after your introductory remarks, put up a “menu” slide with a list of topics that you can discuss. Here’s the menu slide for my startup-law talk; each topic is linked to the start of the cor­res­pon­ding sequence of slides in the deck:

Ask the audience to vote for which topic to cover FIRST

A menu of topics for a startup-law presentation

As we’ll see in another image below:  in some presentations, the audience could have a very-different idea of the sequence in which these topics should be addressed.

NOTE: You’ll want to be sure you know the slide number of the menu slide, so that you can quickly return to the menu during the actual presentation, as discussed later.

Do a show-of-hands: Which topic to cover first?

Next, ask for a show of hands about which topic to cover FIRST (with only one vote per person), and jot down the vote counts for each topic. This provides a rough but serviceable indication of the topic sequence that the audience col­lect­ive­ly prefers.

If you’re making a pitch to just one or two people, such as angel in­vest­ors or venture capitalists, you can ask them if they’d like to specify not just the first topic, but the entire sequence of topics. Of course, you’ll want to be ready with your own sequence if they demur.

Or: Use ranked-choice online voting

With a larger audience, you can get an even-better sense of the audience’s collective preference by asking attenders to use their phones to vote online. You can use a service such as PollEverywhere.com, which allows ranked voting and provides a nice bar-graph display in real time. (I have no re­la­tion­ship with PollEverywhere except as a customer.)

Here’s an example from a startup-law talk earlier this year — notice how the preferred sequence of topics, as voted on by this particular audience, is quite different from the sequence in the menu slide above:

The audience’s topic-order preferences for a startup-law presentation

Then proceed per the vote count

Finally, discuss the topics, in the sequence voted on by the audience.  In the “slideshow” mode of Powerpoint, do the following:

  • Click on the appropriate link in the menu slide to go to the corresponding slide sequence.
  • To get back to the menu slide, just type the number of the menu slide and press the Enter key.  (For example, in my start­up-law deck, the above menu slide is #29.) This is how it works in Powerpoint; presumably you can do much the same thing when using other presentation software.


Letting your audience vote on your topic sequence offers several advantages for both you and the au­dience:

1. Often you won’t have enough time in your presentation to address all of the topics listed in your menu slide. That’s OK, because with this voting ap­proach, you can be smarter in allocating the time you do have — audiences seem to prefer speakers who dive deep into, and answer questions about, the topics that the attenders actually care about.

2. You won’t need to worry whether you have enough material to fill your time:  Just include extra material in your slide deck, and keep going until your time is up. (This not unlike the way newspaper reporters are trained to write stories in an inverted-pyramid form so that editors can cut from the bottom up to fit the available hard-copy space.)

And who knows: What you thought of as filler material might turn out to be quite important to your particular audience.

3. Sometimes a given topic might not get any votes at all. This isn’t a bad thing: It tells you that, with this audience, you can safely skip the zero-vote topic. Surely that’s better than blindly guessing which topic(s) to address and which to skip.

And again, who knows: With a different audience, your zero-vote topic might turn out to be the favorite.

4. By talking about your topics in the order that your audience prefers, you can safely end your presentation at the scheduled time. That will score points with your audience; it’ll also endear you to your moderator or other organizer, if there is one.



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