The One Question To Ask Before Every Presentation

What is your bright shiny object?

If there’s just one headline, one idea, or one takeaway message that your audience remembers three months from now, what do you want that to be?

I’ve posed that seemingly simple question to thousands of speakers. Few are able to answer it directly, at least at first. Some can’t answer it even after they’ve finished putting their presentations together.

It’s easy to understand why so many people struggle when trying to identify their bright shiny object (BSO). We’re so focused on the details—the individual points we want to make, examples we intend to offer, and slides we plan to display—that we forget to take a step back and ask ourselves what single idea binds everything else together.

A simple thought exercise might help. Imagine holding up a large round object that radiates light, much like a lamp, throughout your presentation. Because that object is so luminescent—such an obvious draw for the audience’s attention—it would be impossible for anyone to miss.

Now, imagine being given the opportunity to emblazon just one sentence—your most important takeaway message—onto that bright shiny object. What would it say?

Answering that question is often the best place to begin planning a presentation. A talk developed with a clear BSO in mind helps ensure that your entire talk will be centered on an unmistakable theme—which almost guarantees that your audience will be able to spot it.

Chris Anderson, curator of the TED Conference and author of TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, calls that one overarching theme a “through line,” which he compares to “a strong cord or rope onto which you will attach all the elements that are part of the idea you’re building.”

Speakers who fail to identify their presentation’s BSO—or who bury it beneath numerous topics, unrelated points, and unnecessary detail—no longer have a bright shiny object. They have a barely flickering one. It’s as if someone started lowering their light’s dimmer switch as they spoke. If the main point remained visible to the audience at all, they would have had to strain to see it.

Here are a few examples of BSOs: 

  • “Cheap food is cheap food for a reason.”
  • “Two new competitors are threatening our market share, and to survive, we must begin acting like a startup again.”
  • “Artists—yes, artists—play a critical role in solving some of the world’s most intractable problems, such as poverty, water shortages, and hunger.”
  • “Online retail giants might sell products for less than your local independent merchant—but they will ultimately cost you more.”
  • “Sitting has become the smoking of our generation.” (Author Nilofer Merchant used this BSO in her TED Talk)
  • “The consequences of climate change are real and irreversible in our lifetimes—but we can still prevent the worst-case scenario from becoming a reality.”