The Art of Subtraction (In Presentation Preparation)

Michelangelo, one of history’s prominent artists, is well known across the world for his artistic works. And yet, to this day his creative process is one that remains somewhat mysterious. 

Last month I was in Italy and had the opportunity to admire one of Michelangelo’s most famous sculptures located in Florence, ‘The Statue of David’.

As I stood in awe of this masterpiece I couldn’t help but imagine how someone would even begin to create this. 

I spoke to our guide and she shared with us that Michelangelo would often create in isolation and as such there was very limited information on his process. But from the little information we did have she described his process as an ‘Art of Subtraction’

She told us how Michelangelo believed that ‘the sculpture already existed within the marble block and that it was his job to chisel away everything that was not necessary to reveal it’. 

That idea resonated with me because I have found the same to be true of presentation preparation. That it is an ‘Art of Subtraction’. The process of removing everything unnecessary or unhelpful to reveal a clear idea or message that is valuable to your audience. 

It is a process of removing the many things we could say to reveal the one thing we must say. 

One of the first questions I always ask when coaching someone on a presentation is about their message. I’ll start with something like “What is the big idea here?” Or “What’s the most important thing you want to say?” Because I have found the hardest part of the process isn’t just having content or information to share, but knowing what brings it all together. Finding the common thread of an idea that connects each piece you share. 

It is easy to fall into a process of addition. We may start with a great idea or topic but as we gather all our thoughts and source all the information, we lose clarity and end up staring at a giant block of content.

You might find yourself caught up in the process of addition if:

  • You can’t succinctly articulate one clear message or tie content together.
  • You find yourself obsessing about how you might fill the time. 
  • You have too much content for your allocated time. 
  • You have a few different directions you could go with what you have. 

The big question to be repeatedly asking in the preparation process is actually quite simple: 

“Does this REVEAL or does this CONCEAL my key message or idea.”

  • If it helps people understand your message or reveals the big idea, then keep it.
  • If it distracts, conceals or takes people away from your key message, cut it away. 

Don’t be afraid of speaking less or coming in under your allocated time. People rarely complain about finishing early. Be more concerned about revealing one clear message and connecting it with your audience so that they never forget it.