By Janet C. Arrowood
You've just been tapped to make a presentation. Going through old files on your subject matter, you find a presentation with the same title and then think to yourself, "This is my lucky day! Someone already did most of the work." This may be true — or it may not be. Some topics and materials lend themselves well to being recycled or reused, but some don't. It's important to know the difference.
When does recycling make sense?
Reuse makes sense if presentation slides, notes, and materials worked well the first time and can be updated or given a new angle or focus. How do you know whether a presentation was a success the first time?
- Ask around. Explain your situation to people who attended the seminar, workshop, or event, and get their opinions: "Were you at this presentation? Did you find the materials relevant?"
- Find out whether there was an evaluation done at the end of the presentation. If so, look through the comments to see what, if anything, was said about the materials. This is a case where a lack of comments is not necessarily a good thing — it may indicate a lack of interest.
- Find out whether people other than the person who developed the slides have used the materials. Imitation is both a form of flattery and an acknowledgment that materials are of high quality.
What kinds of topics lend themselves to recycling?
Here are some examples of topics that lend themselves well to reuse:
- Lectures on the history of something — such as your company.
- General training programs, such as employee orientations, that do not cover outdated technology.
- Workshops that cover general topics such as writing a business plan.
The key to effective reuse is that the essential elements of the original material stay much the same over time. Although you may refocus or add to the material, the message is somewhat timeless. The changes you need to make might be more for appearances (for example, to take advantage of the new features in Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2003) or to add a new angle or updated information to the original message. In either case, of course, it is important to make sure that additions fit with the existing material.
What kinds of topics can actually necessitate reuse?
Some materials can't be changed and must be reused — for example, compliance-related information, or legally reviewed material such as excerpts from an employee handbook. Be sure to identify any material in your presentation that should not be changed.
If new material has to go through a lengthy approval process, it often makes sense to work from existing approved presentations. Perhaps you can rearrange the slides and handouts to freshen the materials and add nonsubject-matter slides (such as cartoons or interesting background information) to liven up things a bit.
When is recycling a bad idea?
If something is quickly dated, or wasn't well received the first time, recycling is probably not a good idea. Consider the subject — if it's technical or full of time-sensitive data, recycling may be more work than it's worth.
Here's a rule to consider: If you need to research or verify the accuracy of a lot of information in an existing presentation, you may be better off starting from scratch. Here are examples of topics that might not lend themselves well to effortless reuse:
- Almost anything related to the Internet
- Software, IT, engineering, and related topics, because they are constantly evolving
- Materials involving future plans, goals, or projects
- Pricing presentations
- New construction presentations
- Political or government agendas
- Research-based presentations
- Current event-related presentations
It can be tempting to try to modify existing materials that fall into this category, but you can quickly lose track of what you need to verify and change. Instead, create a new outline, review the old material for structure and ideas, and then build a new presentation.
Another important factor to consider is whether your audience is overly familiar with the material. Consider when and how often the audience has heard "the same old stuff." Even if the materials are great and the script is easy to follow, you can lose your audience. People have short attention spans and long memories when it comes to repeated information. If, for example, you are the person holding the annual ethics meeting, a copy of last year's presentation is probably available for you to review. You might be tempted to dust off this presentation and reuse it, but much of your audience has already heard the presentation.
Unless circumstances require a rigid format and set content, updating can be a very good thing.
How do you decide when and how much to recycle?
Here are a few guidelines to consider when deciding how much of a presentation to reuse:
- Know your audience. What are audience members supposed to gain from the presentation? Have they heard the presentation before? Did they enjoy it?
- Identify all of the source materials you have available. You might be able to combine slides and handouts from several other presentations.
- Don't use materials that are out of date, are beyond your competencies, or have failed to impress past audiences.
What are the pros and cons of recycling?
If this is the first time you've presented this material, you may want to create an entirely new presentation. Why? Building a presentation from scratch is a great learning experience. You decide what to leave in and what to leave out. You can create handouts by printing your PowerPoint slide notes. You build the outline and coordinate the graphics and animation. The resulting presentation reflects your personality and style, which can make you more comfortable in front of an audience.
On the other hand, it takes a lot of time to create a new presentation. You have to outline the subject. You must make sure that your information is correct, relevant, and current. You have to arrange the information to fit the time allotted. You don't know how your audience will react to new material.
So recycling is an efficient approach to creating presentations — provided that the reused material fits your situation and audience. Take the time up-front to assess the suitability of existing resources for reuse, and reap the benefits of both saved time and sound information.
About the author Janet C. Arrowood is the managing director of The Write Source/Continuing Education Unlimited, Inc., a Golden, Colorado–based writing, training, and course development company.