The hierarchy of information simplifies and prioritises information in accordance with importance to help audiences gain an understanding quickly and comprehensively.
When I started learning journalism in university, one of the first things we bright-eyed students were shown was the ‘inverted pyramid’. It’s an old technique that originated from newspaper writing – ensure all the crucial information is said within the first sentence or two.
The idea behind this concept was that if a story needed to be shortened for the sake of another story, editors knew immediately they could remove later paragraphs without impacting the necessary information and overall story. Thus the ‘inverted pyramid’ – get all the important information out there immediately and then you can go less pertinent the further down the page you go.
This method is almost the opposite of other writing styles, such as comedic writing or scientific, which demands the most important information is given to the audience in the conclusion (or at the punchline).
The ‘inverted pyramid’ showing hierarchy & flows comfortably into presentation design as any member of your audience should be able to understand the basic idea of your message within the first slide or two.
Remember when you first learned how to outline an essay – start with your basic argument, which should be no more than a single sentence, and then write the body of your essay with finer details and examples, then conclude with a basic summary of what you’ve written.
I remember this stuff well because I’ve kept using the ‘inverted pyramid’ for everything – arguing with friends and family, writing freelance articles, and sending risky text messages to those I have no business messaging in the first place.
People, by nature, find comfort in ranking and classifying things – it helps us understand ideas and their importance. It might be a difficult task, but it will help you get a better grasp of what you’re trying to say if you can rank the information from most to least important. When trying to outline your message succinctly, don’t forget the five W’s – what, where, when, who, and why.
Once you understand what you need to convey to your audience immediately, put that information in first. Within the first or second slide of your presentation, you should have outlined your primary argument and the key points to demonstrate your message. All the ‘need to know’ stuff should be explained from the start because audiences’ attention span is a fickle thing, so get in there early.
After you’ve gotten the most important information out of the way, you can then expand on your key ideas, add your own flair with examples, data, illustrations, infographics, and all those wonderful teaching tools in a manner of hierarchy that audiences trust more than mere opinions.
Towards the end of your presentation, it’s useful to recap the most important parts and potentially pose some questions to your audience in order to open up dialogue and break the single direction of information flow. Afterall, interaction can be a valuable teacher and will help prove your audience has been paying attention.