I’ve been blogging for 11 years. Almost that entire time, I’ve been waging a campaign against slides. I’m losing. A realist might say that I’ve lost – and in fact, lost some time ago. But I’m an optimist, for some reason, so I’m still fighting the good fight.
Why am I so determined to stamp out slideware as it’s typically used by speakers almost everywhere almost all the time? Because of lots of neuroscience that shows that we humans can’t multitask. At all. What we do is switch between one thing and another, and when we do, we manage the switching inefficiently. We lose the tail end of what we’re switching from and the beginning of what we’re switching to. So every time you ask me, as an audience member, to look at a slide, we stop listening to you talk for a moment, switch into visual mode, and lose a bit of what you’re saying. Then, when we’re done staring enthusiastically at your magnificent visual creation and turn our attention back to you, we lose your first few words.
Switching costs. So why do you ask your audiences to do it? Because you were convinced a long time ago by a bogus study and a cliché. Microsoft did a study of slideware that – astonishingly – found that it aided comprehension. Don’t believe it. And ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. Only sometimes.
But despite the facts, I’m losing the persuasion battle. Why is that? Aside from my limitations as a polemicist, there are a few quite powerful trends against me – some good, some not so good.
1. Slideware keeps getting better. Many of my erstwhile opponents have taken advantage of the incredible technology, photography, and video available today to be able to offer quite astonishing images, graphics, and mini-movies to their audiences. Slide decks done by the best in the business are works of technological art. This is a good reason.
2.In the hands of a pro, slideware creates a vivid dialogue between speaker and screen. Most people don’t do slides well, but those who do often do them very well indeed. I’ve seen speakers click through close to 200 phenomenal images in the course of an hour-long keynote, often using the slide as a punch line after a verbal set up, getting laugh after laugh, and even moving their audiences to tears with a picture that carries deep emotional impact. This is also a good reason.
3.For fear of a distracted audience, the slide ante keeps getting raised. There is a widespread belief that audiences, like humanity in the modern world, are suffering from shorter and shorter attention spans. In an ADD world, then, the only recourse, the argument goes, is to so dazzle the audience with slides that it is mesmerized, unable to look away.
This is not a good reason. It’s not even true. If it were, would binge-watching Game of Thrones or House of Cards be a thing?
Yes, we are being trained by social media and the online world in general to sip from the overwhelming firehose of information coming at us 24-7, but that doesn’t mean we’ve lost the taste for good storytelling. When we find that, we are delighted to spend as long as we can in the world created by a gifted storyteller.
4. Finally, the speaking world is a competitive arms race. As the competition has heated up, speakers have resorted to ever-more-glitzy slide decks to keep up with their rivals. This is also not a good reason. Rather than relying on technological crutches, speakers who want to compete should double down on good storytelling.
And one final clarification in the war between PowerPoint and this Coach. I often hear people say that “we are visual learners,” in arguing that slides are a good thing. That research comes from a long time ago and it has been debunked. That said, it is also true that a huge amount of our brain processing power is taken up most of the time with visual analysis. That’s because seeing some danger in the space around us is almost always the fastest way to be able to avoid it. But we don’t spend that brain power looking at photography. Rather, what we do is look at the people around us to determine friend or foe? Powerful or subservient? And so on.
So most of your audience’s visual energy is expended looking at you (and the other members of the audience), not in looking at your slides. Better to focus on yourself as a speaker than on your PowerPoint.
And that’s where the battle lines currently are drawn.