powerpoint slides projector conference room

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.

 

20 Comments

  1. Nick, you are fighting the wrong battle. Instead of waging war against PowerPoint, you should be fighting against *bad* PowerPoint. That would be more satisfying for you, and however unwinnable it might be, it might be more energizing. And as you have witnessed at our Presentation Summit, it can be good business.

  2. Slides are simply a tool. Like any tool, they can be used well, or poorly. They can enhance or detract from the speaker’s words, depending on the skill with which they are deployed. Steve Jobs and Seth Godin are prime examples of the excellent use of slides.

  3. Stay strong, Nick! I fear we’ve lost already yet still I believe that someone must be the voice of reason, yes?

    Seriously, I have long cautioned that PowerPoint is a tool, not a crutch. Unfortunately, I see more crutches being used than tools in this regard.

    1. Yes, Erica, thanks! All it takes is a little encouragement and I will go on being the ‘voice of reason’. A tool, not a crutch — exactly!

  4. You are not alone! I speak at some length in Own Any Occasion about how to create effective talks. Because visuals may be part of a talk, PowerPoint must be discussed. I’m trying to ban bullet points, for starters. (Of course, it doesn’t matter how well you create a talk if you can’t perform the talk–the second part of the book.)

  5. Thanks for the post, Nick, it’s a valuable question for those of us who try to speak.

    As a listener, I have found that when the topic is way over my head slides can help. But as you say, only when the presentations are really well done. Otherwise all I am aware of is my own ignorance.

    However as a general rule, I agree with you Nick that the good story teller wins the day. I’m reminded of when I brought a speaker to my kids’ high school in Paris. Imagine a dark auditorium filled with over 500 teens. Actually it wasn’t that dark, as most of those faces were illuminated by the screens of their (forbidden) smart phones. My friend Jon Young of 8Sheilds Institute is a slight, unassuming guy of indeterminate age – – and he took the stage with nothing but a mic. Jon spoke quietly of experiences he has had with other teens, how connecting with nature helped them overcome lives of violence and addiction. To be honest I worried at first because nobody was listening but by the end, those little screens were gone and all ears strained to hear the outcome of Jon’s stories. Twenty five minutes of rapt attention. No slides, no music, nothing but compelling human tales.

    I’ll stick with stories.

  6. Well, you won this convert. I am about to deliver a brand new speech for the first time next week…0 slides. I’ve been working to get to that point for a long time, and I’m keen to give it a try. But I still love the slides that Public Words made for my previous keynote and I’m not giving them up!

    1. Liane, great to hear from you, and I’m excited to learn that you’ll be delivering a zero-slide talk. Your storytelling skills will be stretched, and the audience will be entranced! And it’s good to hear that the PW slides are still going strong. There’s room for a lot of approaches from individual speakers, as well as, of course, lots of speakers.

  7. It’s not the least a question of what kind of presentation you’re delivering. A scientific presentation in which you don’t show a shred of data will very likely fall short of audience expectations and likely fail to convince. I like to say that I have yet to see someone present the results of a multicentric clinical study on a flip chart convincingly to a scientific audience… While you certainly can draw a graph on a flipchart, a graph that doesn’t look like it’s been pulled out of at least Excel if not a statistics suite will always look like it’s been pulled out of a hat – at least to skeptical scientists.

    Storytelling is good and necessary. But depending on the circumstances, it can and should be a framework. Focusing purely on story will leave us in the healthcare sector with stories such as the Theranos case, in which the technology was chiefly hype and the story too good to be true from the get-go, but told well enough to not just draw massive amounts of venture capital but, and that’s where it gets seriously dangerous, get an unproven and actually non-working technology into actual use on patient material.

    Story and data aren’t mutually exclusive. The key problem with bad content-driven presentation is all too often a lack of focus, which also leads to a lack of structure, which leads to endless bullet points and lists of facts. Wanting to provide as many points for the greatness of one’s product, work, organization or person, information is added at the cost of message. The other problem that I see in a lot of scientific presentations is a failure to understand the differences between a publication (one source of information, reader in control of timing) and presentations (two sources of information, presenter in control of timing). The resulting copy/paste is certainly convenient for the author of the presentation but not for the audience and regularly leads to information overload.

    By all means, embrace the flow of a story, but keep in mind that there are fields in which presenting evidence is a necessity for a responsible presentation and using storytelling doesn’t rule that out. So as usual, the key point is to ask “Who’s your audience?”, “What do you want to convey to them?” and “What do you have to do to convey your message to this specific audience?”.

    1. Hi, Oliver — thanks for your comment, and of course I agree. I’ve worked with hundreds of scientists and engineers over the 20 years I’ve been running Public Words, and our goal is always how to tell the story clearly and effectively in a way that the audience will be brought along without manipulation or hype. And of course scientific audiences (as well as engineers and medical audiences) need data. The issue comes with how that data is presented. It’s both discourteous and bad science to present a dense slide that is covered with hundreds of data points as proof of something to an audience when that audience can’t even begin to read the slide let alone parse the data in any meaningful way. So many people confuse the data repository that a good set of graphs and charts can be with the slide that you show to an audience on a large screen, when there can be anywhere from 50 to 5,000 people in the room. If you get more than a few feet from such a slide, even on that large screen, the data points become unintelligible. How does that serve your proof, your story, or science? The point is that you can put one (legible) version of the data on a slide (showing only the key points and takeaways), and convey a fuller set to the audience in some other way (printed, emailed, in a paper, etc). But don’t confuse the visual images you put on a screen in front of an audience with that fuller data set. That does a disservice both to the work you’ve done and to the audience. And it misunderstands the genre of a public talk, and the audience’s ability to digest and remember large sets of data. All the research shows audiences only remember 10 – 30% of what they hear and see in a talk. So deliver the level of data that’s appropriate in one genre, and the full proof or case in another.

      1. Indeed. In a post over on presentation-guru.com. I took some slides from two conference slidekits and tried to simplify them for use in presentations. http://www.presentation-guru.com/can-a-slidedoc-ever-be-a-presentation/
        Now, I could do that only because the specific site provides editable slides. Unfortunately, a lot of publishers out there simply provide you with JPGs which routinely are simply not fit to use in a presentation…
        Where it gets really silly is some publishers of academic journals providing the “boon” of downloadable slides for the figures in a publication, but maintaining the layout they made for the print publication… The classical result is then having to turn a figure layouted for use on a portrait page by 90° to squeeze it into a landscape slide…. and thereby force 200+ people to tilt their heads to read all the annotations

        But of course, for all too many speakers, convenience is all that matters. I saw one at a recent trade fair who had cobbled together his presentation by copy/pasting a host of huge tables from print publications, which he then recited with his back to the audience… Whatever he wanted to convey, to me, he conveyed that he neither took this presentation nor its audience seriously…

  8. Hi Nick. Thanks again for another thought-provoking blog. I’m a photographer and a facilitator/presenter and couldn’t live without images. They hit the limbic part of the brain (unless you’re talking about poor quality clip-art!) and evoke an emotional response in our participants. Clips are even more powerful, especially with the addition of well-chosen music. I had people in tears several times during a session last week – and I can guarantee they’ll remember why!

    1. Thanks, Sandy — and yes, of course, photographers are one group that can’t get along without slides/images. Another is Everest climbers — I can’t imagine talking about Everest without some photography accompaniment. There are many groups for whom slides/images/charts/graphs are essential. Whom I was aiming my remarks at was the group of (primarily) business speakers that use slides with lots of words, bullets, and quotes, primarily as speaker notes.

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