Step Away from the Slideware!

By virtue of my role, I attend a lot of conferences, and witness a lot of presentations from a lot of different speakers, few of them professional or even what you would call practiced amateurs. On the whole, these non-speaker speakers generally do a good job, all things considered. All things being the fact that this isn’t what they do for a living, likely isn’t even something they do  very often, and so they don’t have a world of experience. There is one thing however that they all do consistently poorly. Let’s look at an example.

A few weeks ago week I was in Miami hosting three back-to-back conferences. As the attendees arrived for the third conference, one of the speakers came up to talk to me; let’s call him “Bobby” to preserve his privacy. It turned out the Bobby knows I speak a lot, knows he doesn’t speak a lot, and was hopeful of getting feedback and pointers on his session. It also turned out that Bobby was going to be the very last speaker of the conference. Now, last speaker can be a decent slot since you’re the one that gets to leave the final impression. But it can also be a pressure-filled slot since you’re the one that gets to leave the final impression.

Bobby was awesome. He knew his material cold. He spoke with passion and authority. He answered every question seamlessly, and with an honest and not made-up-on-the-spot answer. He engaged the room and made the thirty minutes go by quickly instead of agonizingly slowly. And he never once looked at his slides. Slides that were, I’m sorry to say, painfully awfully terrible.

And this brings me to what speakers consistently do poorly. It’s not making bad slides. It’s misunderstanding the point of the slides.

Too many speakers approach a presentation from the perspective that their speech is there to support the slides when the exact opposite is the truth. People don’t come to a presentation to see what your slides say; they come to hear what YOU say.

When I gave Bobby my feedback he was initially pleased, but when I told him to chuck his slides and go it without them a look of panic settled onto his face. He couldn’t conceive of not having the dense, wordy slides he had built as the very core of his presentation. I cajoled and persuaded and I think I got through to him. Now I’m going to cajole and persuade you. Hopefully it will have the same effect:

  1. The audience came to see you, not your slides. The central component of a great presentation is a great speech. It’s not the visuals on the screen; it’s the messaging you deliver. Make sure you have something worthwhile say.
  1. It’s ok to have slides but remember their role. The slides support your message, provide the visual cue to the “aha” moments in what you are saying. A visual cue is not the script of your presentation, nor is it a bulleted list of the points you intend to make. It is a picture, a chart, a data point, a word. Your slides should be a series of these, and nothing more.
  1. Without that slide crutch, you’re going to have to practice. What made Bobby’s presentation great was that he knew his material. He knew the points he wanted to make and he knew when and how to make them. Because he wasn’t winging it, relying on the words on the slides to bail him out. Because he’d practiced.
  1. Tell the complainers they’ll just have to pay attention. If anyone in the audience indicates they’d like slides, or the provided slides to be denser so they can “follow along”, gently remind them that humans can either read or listen but not both at once. And that they’re really there to listen.

If the President doesn’t need slides when he delivers the State of the Union Address, and Martin Luther King didn’t need slides when he delivered his Dream speech, you don’t need slides when you deliver your presentation. Step away from the slideware and your message be heard more clearly.

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