Finding a throughline is useful in all professional presentations, and especially helpful when running a demo.
Crafting a great performance can be a bit like navigating a long trip the old school way- with a road map. The moment-to-moment map an actor creates in regards to a character is often referred to as the "throughline", and it takes a lot of work and planning on the part of the actor to develop.
Recently we shared a great article by Annie Murphy Paul for creativitypost.com entitled "How To Use Your Memory The Way Actors Do." In the article, Ms. Paul defines a throughline as "the causal chain that leads one event in the play to topple into the next and the next." A clear and specific throughline for a performance allows an actor to build the life of the character by asking questions that take them from one moment to another.
Creating a throughline is an extremely useful tool for crafting any professional presentation- but it comes in especially handy when running a demo. Think of it this way: you are demonstrating to your audience the steps involved in how something works. Finding how one event in your presentation topples into another, as Ms. Paul puts it, ensures that you:
1. Have created a clear flow from introduction, through the key points of your demo, to your conclusion;
2. Have demonstrated your process in a logical order for your listener;
3. Have answered basic questions along the way because you've already asked them of yourself.
As the article points out, throughlines are also helpful for memorizing (or at least familiarizing!) yourself with your content. The process of going through one tiny step at a time results in building blocks that string your content together in your mind. However, it is also useful to find out if your presentation is making sense, if you are addressing all aspects of what you are demonstrating, and if you are including any unnecessary information.
How to Find a Throughline for Your Demo Presentation
First, ask yourself a very broad question about your content: "Where am I starting, and where will I end?". Actors use this question to think in terms of the "arc" of their character- how their character changes over the course of the play. Just as you would with a road map, you need to establish your origin and your destination, so you can decide how you're going to get there. Remember, you're thinking in broad strokes here. You may answer this question with something like "I'm starting by introducing a new product version to an audience who is only familiar with what is currently available. By the end, they will know not only how to interact with the new version, but be persuaded to immediately upgrade to it."
Then, break your presentation in to "beats". Beats* are also known as units of action in a play. The term was coined by Constantin Stanislavski, the father of method acting. Basically, beats are sections that an actor breaks a play down into based on major changes in actions or events. For example, one beat may be a section about one character inviting another to go to dinner, followed by a beat about introducing a new character named Betty, followed by a beat about calling a restaurant and demanding reservations. It's a way to think through major actions in an organized manner.
You can break your presentation down that way, too. (It helps make notes in you presentation outline.) Start with "this is the beat where I introduce myself" followed by "this is the beat where I layout my first key point, which is __________" and so forth. You can even divide them into smaller beats, as you go.
This is especially helpful when you come into the demo section of your presentation. Breaking your demo into beats ensures that you are covering every step in your process or system. For example "This beat is about creating an account, this beat is about the benefits of said account, this beat is about the first step to use your account", etc.
Actors sometimes draw lines in their script to delineate major beats, or even give them names based on the content they contain. This can be helpful with getting accustomed to your presentation's flow. To use our scene about the dinner reservations as an example, an actor may say something like "Right. It's invitation, then Betty, then reservations". This can help you overview content on the go- "It's account creation, then benefits, then first step." You've now found the major points to your throughline.
Next, you want to go from one beat to another and ask yourself "What am I doing and why?". This simple question can point up flaws in presentation structure, missing points, or unnecessary information. An actor might say something like this of a character: "I'm persuading him to go to dinner, because I want to introduce him to Betty and get him off my case!" By being specific about that simple question, the actor can justify every move they will make through the play.
It's easy to do this through your demo presentation. For example "I'm outlining how to create an account, because people will reap more benefits if they are registered. Then, I'm enticing them with the benefits because they are impressive and unique to our product. I'm then moving to first steps because they need to address them before they can access any other part of the system."
Step-by-step clarity and specifics are always helpful to a presentation. But how can that question point up flaws? By outlining how each beat fits together, you can easily see where you may be missing a step ("Hang on! Clearly, this must be out of order because I'm discussing a process before I've told them how to access it."), or including non-essential information ("There is no justifiable reason for me to be addressing this point at this time- maybe I don't need it.") You can streamline your throughline by figuring out what you are doing and why.
Last, but not least, examine the connective tissue between these ideas. Essentially, you're making sure that your transitions are clear between one idea and another. Spend some time looking at the language you will use to get you from one point in your throughline to the next. An actor might say "Oh, this line "I'm calling the restaurant" is the connective tissue between these beats. In your presentation you might say "I will transition between these beats by saying '___________________.'" Stringing your presentation together clearly, moment-by-moment, with strong transitions brings everyone along together on your demo path.
Specificity in relation to text and content is essential to good acting. Building a throughline for your demo (or any presentation!) clarifies your message for you AND your audience, no Google Maps required.
*Bonus Fact: Stanislavski wasn't actually saying to divide the script into "beats"-he was saying "bits". But thanks to his strong Russian dialect, it sounded otherwise, and acting beats were born.