Speaking: When it's Time to Lose the Slides

In the business world most presentations are accompanied by Powerpoint or Keynote slides. This is so much taken for granted that the first instinct of many people when they are asked to speak is to put together a slide deck.

Yet there are many cases where it can be more effective to present without slides. This approach has several advantages. First of all it reduces the amount of preparation overhead. Look around the offices of any large business and you will quite often see people spending way too much time on this activity. I have often wondered what would happen if presentation software could log and report hours of activity so that an organization could measure the overall cost of slide preparation.

Better still, not only does it eliminate the time spent making slides, it also gives you more flexibility during the delivery, where you can pivot the presentation more easily in response to previous presentations or inputs from the audience. Perhaps a comment by someone else in the meeting makes your entire presentation moot, but without slides nobody will ever know. If you do have slides you can hedge by writing key words that can be presented in different ways depending on how things go.

But most important of all, you will usually find that not having slides forces the audience to pay attention to you and what you are saying. Very often presenters show a complex slide then try to talk while people are concentrated on reading it. They cannot read and listen effectively at the same time so the verbal commentary is usually ignored. In darkened rooms the effect is even worse because people's eyes are attracted by the bright light of the screen, and not the speaker, who is often left in the shadows.

By avoiding slides you not only avoid the distraction of the screen, you can also have the lights on and you can turn the projector off. Don't underestimate this last point. One little secret of compelling presentating that I discovered years ago is that when you turn off the projector the fan noise suddenly stops. While it is still on the audience is filtering this noise so they are not consciously aware of it, but when it stops they can suddenly hear you better, even when you speak more quietly.

There are some cases where a visual aid would be useful -- perhaps some numbers, an unfamiliar word or an image -- but slides are not the only tool for this. You can also use a flipchart or, better still, a whiteboard, but make sure you practice writing confidently on it. You should also carry your own whiteboard pen. Most meeting rooms have just one green pen that is dry, a beige pen that is barely visible and one pen that works -- a permanent marker that can only be cleaned away with toxic solvents. Have a plan, too, for what you will write so that it is not random notes but carefully thought out supporting words and graphics.

Actual physical props and demos are also very powerful tools to support your presentation and tend to keep the focus on the speaker and not a screen. Just be careful to avoid being upstaged by your own demo. If your demo is incredibly fascinating it's best to show it at the end of your presentation to avoid distracting the audience. Handheld props are the best, but again make sure that you practice picking them up and putting them down, which is surprisingly hard to do smoothly.

You might, though, check about the local office culture before you try speaking without slides. In some traditional organizations this might be misinterpreted as laziness or inexperience even if the result is more compelling. If you are a thought leader and high in the local hierarchy you can do what you want, and you should set a good example, but if you are a new hire it might be wiser to conform to the local expectations at the beginning.

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If you would like to learn more about speaking and pitching contact Andrew Hennigan at speaker@andrewhennigan.com or 0046 730 894 475. A pitch coach for startup workshops and speaker coach at TEDxStockholm, Andrew can provide speaking workshops at any level and one-to-one speaker coaching, especially for people who want to go from great to awesome or who want to learn how to be a powerful speaker with not much time to spend on preparing. This coaching can be face-to-face in the Stockholm area or through Skype/Facetime or whatever video call app you prefer.


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