Speaking: Talk About the Story, Not the Slides

As a child I recall being taken to see public lectures by explorers, mountaineers and other enterprising people. After all these years my lasting memory of these talks is how some people can do amazing things but be astonishingly dull when describing it.

Part of the blame lies in the style that they used. Every single one of them used a technique where they simply presented a sequence of slides and then described each slide.

"This is me putting on my boots".

"This is me eating breakfast".

"This is me on the summit".

Which is almost inevitably dull and uninteresting.

Once you make a decision to describe slides you are forced to adapt to the images and this simply doesn't work very well. Good talks are based on good storytelling so it is much better to craft your story first, and then to illustrate it with images, words, videos, props and demos that support that story. A really good talk would work without any slides at all, which is an added benefit if anything goes wrong with the technology -- you can simply fall back on a plan B. Knowing that you are not reliant on technology can be very reassuring for some nervous speakers.

By far the best way to create a strong story-focused talk is to start with the story, but sometimes it's already too late for that because you already have a presentation. But it's not impossible to fix an existing presentation that is too slide-centric. Here are three ways to do this:

First of all go through the presentation and remove all of the slides that do not add any value. In business presentations it is common to have a slide on the screen at all times and when there isn't a useful illustration to fill in the gap with a generic stock illustration. This is not necessary and distracts from your message. It also wastes time searching for images -- time better spent working on the story.

Second, simplify all of the slides, concentrating on key images and words. Resist the temptation to squeeze many images onto one slide and avoid wordy slides that speak directly to the audience. If you have written all of your messages on the screen people will read that and not pay attention to what you say. In academic presentations there are sometimes so many things on the screen that the audience can't even absorb them, never mind listen to what the speaker is saying.

Finally, adapt what you say about the slides so that they support the talk and not the other way around.
What you say about the images on the screen or the prop in your hand is important. You might need to provide context or explanation, but you don't need to describe what people can see with their own eyes, so if you are showing a picture of an ice axe that broke in an awkward place halfway up a glacier then you should be telling the story then show the axe; don't start by showing the axe and then saying "This is an axe". We can see that. What we don't see is the story.

Once you have a compelling story and the slides or props that support that story you need to practice the talk using a clicker to find the ideal moment for each transition. Somewhat counter intuitively it's better to start talking about something and then click to the image, and not the other way around. This keeps the attention of the audience on the speaker and also feels more natural. Showing the image first then starting the story leaves an awkward gap where people try to understand by themselves.

But what is always most important is to work on the storytelling before anything else. This is the surest way to ensure that you are focusing on telling the story and not just on describing a slide show.

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching and Writing

For lectures, workshops, one-to-one coaching and writing about public speaking, influencing and networking and other topics you can contact Andrew Hennigan by email at speaker@andrewhennigan.com, by phone on 0046 730 894 475 or through his website http://andrewhennigan.com


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