Progressive Elaboration

One of the most common issues I see in my day-to-day work is the challenge colleagues have in communicating complex, or broad, issues to people with either limited understanding or previous interaction with the materials. Usually these presentations also occur in a time sensitive situation. As a result colleagues regularly fail to get the resolution they seek not because their ideas are bad, but because they cannot convey their idea quickly and appropriately.

The methodology I was taught is that proposals should be structured like a newspaper front-page, with a headline, short summary and main body presented (in that order). Unfortunately, I cannot find this approach articulated anywhere. The analogy I use with my team is that presenting a complex idea is like building a house: first you need the foundations, then the walls (the structure), then you add the furniture. It’s the same idea: you start at a high level and add more and more detail. The term I use for this, borrowed from the Project Management discipline, is Progressive Elaboration. It’s a useful tool and a common sense approach, but it is amazing how few people are trained in this way. Time and time again you see colleagues struggling with presenting too much/ too little information, getting challenged on facts or losing some or all of their audience. For this reason, I thought I would explain my process in full:

Part 1 – The Outline

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Part 2 – The Main Body

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Part 3 – The Appendices

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Understanding who you are presenting to, their sophistication, background and writing clearly are absolute musts. And when this is done using the right structure, I find, more times than not, my ideas or proposals get the response I wanted.

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Progressive Elaboration

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