Ghosts in the machine
Tom Salinsky writes...
Consider the following statements, both apparently true, but each apparently contradicted by the other.
- Most people who present regularly understand that it’s tedious for the audience if they fill a slide with information and then read it out.
- Most people who present regularly tend to fill a slide with information and then read it out.
There are a few different reasons for this strange, self-defeating behaviour. One is that people don’t like being looked at. By making the slides do all the “heavy lifting” they avoid making themselves feel too conspicuous. And by then adding nothing verbally, they ensure that anyone who does glance in their direction doesn’t feel they are gaining anything by so doing. They make sure they are dull and so nobody looks at them. Reassuring, but hardly effective.
The other reason is that the preparation for the presentation may have hardly gone any further than typing notes into PowerPoint. Now for each slide, the presenter is faced with the question “what is a suitable audio commentary for this slide?”
Other presenters know that the one thing they must not do is to read out material which is already on the slide, and so their verbal script consists of anything other than what is on the screen. And so, the speaker and the slides diverge as the presentation continues. Eventually, the audience starts experiencing two parallel presentations – one coming out of the speaker’s mouth, the other taking place on the screen – and they interact only very occasionally.
When I use slides at all, I use them mainly for three different purposes.
- To convey material in a visual form. Charts, diagrams, maps and so on – ways of representing complex ideas in a simple graphical form. You still need to talk your audience through what these things mean, but if a chart makes your point, you should use it.
- As signposting, announcing the beginning and ending of different “chapters” of a longer presentation. Note that this does not imply the need for an agenda slide at the beginning – ah, but let me save that for another post.
- To underline particularly important ideas.
What I try to avoid is ever having anything on the slide which I don’t then say – for this reason. Anything the presenters says is – quite obviously – part of the presentation. Anything which the presenter says which is repeated on the screen is part of the presentation but given special emphasis. This is the key reason why speakers use slides at all. Given the chance to take in the same idea both audibly and visually, people will be much more likely to pay attention and remember it.
But anything which is up on the screen but which is not said by the presenter is a weird phantom, both a part and yet not-really a part of the presentation. It’s very distracting, and careful preparation means there is no need for this. Put only a few really key things up on the screen and you will have no horror of reading them out. In between, the power of your personality will hold the audience spellbound, and when you do read out these key points, the two elements of the presentation will be perfectly aligned.