08 September 2009

Designing a narrative with index cards

Working on the workshop, originally uploaded by dgray_xplane.

I recently got an email from a teacher who wanted to know how she could help her students develop better presentations. I've been meaning to write down my method for awhile now and rather than write one email I thought I'd put it into a blog post.

When I develop presentations I like to use index cards to sort through ideas. Sometimes I use a bottom-up approach, sorting and sifting through myriad ideas until the best ones float to the top. Other times I use a top-down approach, starting with the audience and their interests, and building a structure underneath that. More often it’s a combination of the two approaches – I start top-down, with an audience and what I think will interest them. Then I start to develop ideas, but those ideas lead to other ideas and soon I have too many thoughts, after which I need to do some bottom-up sifting to let the best ideas emerge.

The image above is the sorting exercise I went through to develop a workshop I gave in Toronto in 2006. The approach borrows heavily from the card sorting method used in software design.


This is best when you know who you’re presenting to and what they want to know. If you don’t know where to start this is probably the best way to begin.

1. Start by thinking about your target audience and what they are interested in. It helps to imagine a real person that you know that fits the profile.

2. Now, brainstorm a list of questions that you think they might be likely to ask you about the topic in question. Write down one question per index card.

3. Now, try to sort the questions into a sequence that makes sense. Probably this means the most basic questions (such as “What is it?”) at the beginning, and the more action-oriented questions (Such as “how can I apply it?”) toward the end. Now you can look at the questions and see if they form a meaningful sequence that, say, introduces a topic, develops it, and reaches a conclusion. At this point you should have a sequence of cards running from left to right.

4. Now, under each question card, you can start to develop your “answer” cards – slides that will answer the question.


This is best when you have a lot of ideas to sort through but don’t know how to weave them together yet. If you know what you want to talk about you might want to start here.

1. Write down as many ideas on a topic as you can – all the elements that might be useful as part of a presentation. Write down one thought or idea per index card. I often like to sketch on the card as well, thinking about how I might illustrate the concept.

2. Sort the cards into piles that represent ideas that “feel like they belong together.”

3. Name each pile and create a “title card” for each group. Each title card now represents a group of related ideas that might form a section of your presentation.

4. Now, try to arrange the title cards into a meaningful sequence – put the cards into a row. This forms the basis of the narrative thread.

5. Under each title card, you can now create a “column” of index cards with the ideas that form the main points for each section.

6. Now, identify gaps in the story, eliminate redundancies and irrelevant information, and go from there.

As I said, usually I work with a hybrid of the two approaches. It’s much like a conversation, where one person’s thoughts influence the next person’s ideas. Moving back and forth between what the audience wants to hear (the “top”) and what I want to say (the “bottom”) helps me develop a synthesis that integrates my most valuable knowledge with what people are really interested in hearing.

I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts on this approach, and I’d love to hear about your experiences using this or similar approaches in your work. So be a mensch and leave a comment!

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Dave Bartek said...

Did you forget to explain the role of COLOR in the process? I see different colored cards in your picture, and I know it is a big prat of many info sorting processes I use; alone or with others...

Unknown said...

This was a big, half-day workshop and so a bit longer than my typical presentation. I do use color occasionally to call out important topics, "chapter headings" etc. It's not critical to the process but it can help when you want to keep track of a lot of information.

patricia said...

This looks very much like the piles of cards that were generated during a personal coaching session I facilitated yesterday. The client was feeling overwhelmed with his life-long to do list. I invited him to generate a list by recording his tasks, goals, dreams on cards, one for each. He's now processing and reordering, color coding, clustering. I'm afraid he's feeling more overwhelmed than ever, but complexity as well as patterns are emerging from the process.

Unknown said...

I applaud your client for having a life-long to-do list in the first place! :)

Magda said...

This reminds me of how Lynda Barry organizes her notes at the start of class. I think her approach is more non-linear. She scans the cards and grabs appropriate content and stories as she goes along. Hundreds of cards scattered across the stage also looks cool:)

Lynda's Cards

Andrew R said...


Thanks very much for posting this. You hit me at just the right time with this post.

I'd been taught to organize thoughts and essays using this method in high school and college, but it never entirely worked for me. I think I got too caught up with the format and the methodology and couldn't clearly see through those structures to the actual content.

Now I've written several chapters worth of material on Isamu Noguchi and wrote myself a note to do today: "Noguchi Chapter: break into coherent section."

I've tried using mind mapping and other approaches, but I think the simple, tangible file card will be exactly the right prescription for my malady.

Karl said...

There is an approach to writing fiction that is a bit similar to this. You start by capturing themes and scenes and other elements on index cards and then start clustering them and arranging them into a framework of a story. For some reason I think Robert McKee teaches the approach but I am probably mistaken.

eQuixotic said...

I find the electronic version of this concept to be easier to manage.

OmniOutliner is great for something like this.

Unknown said...


Wow. I had never thought of organizing a talk this way in real-time. That's definitely worth a try. My gut says it will work better for longer talks where there is a lot of interaction with the audience.


Very interested in hearing more about that chapter. Noguchi seems like a very interesting person but I haven't seen a lot on him in English.


I can see how that would work well. Vladimir Nabokov was known for writing his novels using index cards.


I know many who would agree with you. Maybe it's a matter of personal preference or learning styles. One reason I like cards is that I can quickly and easily bring the cards into a conversation at, say, a coffee shop, to discuss the ideas.

Eleder said...

Yes, dave, I find your approach very useful. It's also very interesting the concept of conversation you've just explained.

I find myself Mind Mapping useful also and think it can be combined with your method.

About color coding, do any of you know of a way to learn about it? I try it but it seems quite difficult for me...


Catherine Franz said...

Used this method for years and then moved to post-it notes. Now I use mindmapping. It's saves money and trees.

Twitter @catherinefranz

uriba said...

I take a more visual approach - I find it useful, as a presentation starts to take shape, to print it out 6-9 slide per page and staple to a board. then use post it notes pr just write on it things that still need to happen/change. It's a good way of switching between creator/editor modes. It's like working on a storyboard.

But your approach sounds interesting for the first stage of creation and I intend to try it soon.

Scott said...

I always start with the question "what do I want out of this?" It's all about me. Who is my audience? What do I want them to know, believe, do, and feel? How do I want to be seen? How do I build my credibility? These are the first questions I ask.

Then I analyze the audience and perform the necessary prolapsys, develop thesis, form outline, yadayadayada.

I like the notecard system as well. However, when on the go and working, they are not always convenient. MindJet MindManager is FANTASTIC as a digital substitute.

Great stuff Dave. I'm glad I checked back after..........3 years.

Rodolfo said...

I have experienced several times the effect you can produce in an audience, Dave and I can tell you that, while the method helps a lot to organize your thoughts, at the end is the way you engage them into conversation that does the trick.

From a very sunny and long week-end in Madrid...

Cheers, Rodolfo

Leonard Solai said...

i've used a similar method with people who cannot read but were required to explain a particular disease to their community. the presentation was constructed using pictures drawn on cards - stuck onto a big board - then organised sequentially explaining how their illness progressed. Hundreds of pics. clustered and explained - graphically / orally

Janice Molloy, Michigan State University said...

Thank you so much for writing this blog. I'm the teacher who wrote asking for your advice for my students (and me :)).

Your blog was such a help to students as they learn how to create structure--and you now have a growing fan base in Michigan!

Thanks again for giving us a window into how an expert thinks!

Unknown said...

My pleasure Janice, thanks for the note!

Dave Bartek said...

Other thoughts to support your process are tools, like 3x5 rings or notebooks, carson dellosa teacher supplies has pocket wall charts to add another dimension of organization. Also, try using a deck of playing cards with postits or labels and trying to put your thoughts in a different 'structure'.

Unknown said...

I use yellow stickies on the wall for the same type of process. I find it also helps me when I need to write longer items, like ebooks. Organize the thoughts, have them transcribed, then edit.

Bala said...

Its really a good approach, to find out what is important.. But i do feel, the final conclusion, differs from person to person. whats your opinion about this?

Unknown said...

I agree, Bala.

Blair R said...

I like to do this with note taking or 'sketchnoting' which is more what I do. It's hard to show relationships between things in a linear list or book. Cards let you capture ideas/concepts (group them) and place them in relation to other cards/groups. Isn't this how your brain works anyway?