Two things have prompted this blog (which some might call a bit of a rant)… firstly I’m sitting here typing on a laptop running on batteries because there’s no power to the building and hasn’t been all night either, it appears. And secondly, at a big presentation I was giving yesterday the HDMI cable between my laptop and the rather lovely, huge LCD screens on the wall behind me cut out every time I stood on a certain spot on the floor over the wiring.
The former I’m solving by running on batteries for a while (though I may have to go to a cafe at some point when the batteries run out!) and the latter I solved by replacing the HDMI cable with a VGA cable and an a pair of emergency speakers I carried with me. (Sometimes you’re not paranoid – sometimes the world is out to get you!)
But the loss of ‘tech’ on those occasions got me thinking.
Frankly, I have almost no time for those speakers and presenters who brag “I never use slides!” with an evangelical zeal and an assertion – implicit or explicit – that “It’s about the presenter, not the slides”. Behind that is the rather arrogant self-delusion that resorting to slides is somehow inferior. To them I say “If that works for you and your message that’s good. Remember that you only have one message. Have you considered what you’d do if that message was best communicated by slides? What would you do if your presentation was about some element of fine art? Try and get the audience to imagine Michelangelo’s Pieta without having seen it?” Slides work if slides are needed; no slides work if no-slides are needed. It’s as simple as that.
Similarly I have no sympathy for presenters who mindlessly default to slides without thinking about whether those slides are their for the audience’s benefit of their own.
The hard part is deciding when/if slides are needed. And that, gentle reader, is the point of this rant. I’m not going to pretend that the reasoning/list below is comprehensive, or even the finished product, but it’s a reasonable starting point for a checklist, I think.
- It’s true that pictures paint a thousand words, so if you’ve got something that can be best summed up visually, do so. You can save time by just showing your audience what you mean rather than spending time describing it. Personally, I find it particularly handy when I’m working with an audience who doesn’t have the same jargon as me. Do you know exactly what I mean by ‘a nine-eleven with flared arches and a whale fin’? Even if you do, how much more quickly would you have known if I’d shown you what I meant instead?!
- If what you’re talking about is inherently visual, it makes sense to present it visually. Far better to show Cadbury Purple than to say ‘the colour with the RGB mix of XYZ and the hex code of ABC’.
- There are plenty of occasions when you need to repeatedly refer back to the same point – particularly in a process. It’s much easier and quicker to just point to a map of your route, or a decision point in your flow diagram… or whatever… than to repeatedly say “the point in the processes where we sieve for…”. Not only that, it’s less tedious for your audience.
- Sometimes you just need to shock your audience and a sudden, visual image can do that better and faster than a story. Stories are astonishing at bringing sustained emotion to your audience but how much more powerful is it to show a drowned child than to describe a man walking out of the sea, holding a child’s body?
- A lot of presentations refer to processes or relationships. Both of these are often better and more conveniently illustrated visually than aurally. Take a few minutes to watch Simon Sinek’s famous TEDx talk about how great leaders inspire action: then try and figure out how he’d have done that without the very simple visual aid of concentric rings shown to his audience.
- A lot of the time, when you’re relating a story (basically a series of events) it relates to someone else, not you: showing a good image of the ‘hero’ of that story can help make it more accessible to the audience. For example, if I’m discussing some of Einstein’s ideas about communication, I tend to have a simple pictures of his face on the screen as I talk. The same when I tell a story about Hemingway. My personal opinion is that the fewer of your audience who know who you’re talking about, but feel like they should, the more important this is. Again, that’s just a personal feeling.
- Perhaps the final time when you should use slides is when it’s simply so expected of you that your audience will find it hard to access what you’re saying because they’re so taken aback by your style. ;)
On the other hand, no-slides are often remarkably powerful. In my public speaking and presenting it’s not unknown for up to a third of my slides to be black, showing nothing at all.
No-slides are more appropriate when:
- you need to tell a story, to let things build relatively slowly. As a personal aside, I find I tend to finish the story with an image, often showing the happy ending, but that’s just me.
- you’re using the slides as a prop or a crutch or (God help your audience) as a script. Don’t, just don’t.
- when an image wouldn’t add anything to what you’re saying. This is a bit of difficult one to judge because it’s not quite the same as ‘when an image would distract your audience’. My personal feeling is that we (presenters) should be relatively parsimonious with slides, saving them for when they add something
- using them in neutral situations, when they neither add or detract – makes our audience’s work harder and undermines the effectiveness of slides when we do use them (See below!)
- obviously you shouldn’t use slides when they’d actually hinder understanding! (See above!)
- oh, and don’t use slides when your slides are bad. Bullet points are a mistake 99% of the time and even adding an image doesn’t change the fact that they’re still bullet points… just bullet points tarted up with an image! ?
Like I said, I’m sure this isn’t a comprehensive list… it’s more a case of what cropped up in my mind as I was sitting here without electricity because of a power cut… ? What’s your thinking…?
If you’re not using slides, are you sure it’s not just because you’re being lazy or arrogant? I’ve met (and sat through) some very mediocre presentations recently from people who didn’t need to use them because they were just telling their own, personal story.
And as I suffered, along with the audience, I couldn’t but feel that even if the slides weren’t used in the end, the process of structuring the content enough to put it on slides would have been a useful discipline.
As Eisenhower is reputed to have said “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable“.