The other day when I showed up at a venue where I was speaking, I encountered a curious sight: the tech guy, carefully pushing a giant screen into position. I realized that the organizers hadn’t asked me about slides, and simply assumed I must have them. Since I was the only person speaking I quickly spoke up to save the tech guy some labor, and told the people in charge that I would be PowerPoint free. They all went “oh.” It was a good “oh,” though, and one organizer mentioned that they were trying to get more employees to stop using PowerPoint with their presentations.
I think that’s a smart corporate goal. Unless specifically requested to do so (e.g. for my TED talk) I rarely use slides in my speeches. There are several reasons to forego them.
First, PowerPoint is frequently misused. The rationale for slides is to add something visual to a talk that you can’t get just through the speaker talking, or in a hand-out. So when people play video clips, or want to show how things might change in an image, then PowerPoint is a great choice. But often, people just use it to provide a text summary of the highlights of any particular discussion point. There is nothing gained by saying “sales were flat last year” and then putting up a slide that says “sales were flat last year.” This does not help people remember that sales were flat.
I know people use slides to share more complicated information than can be discussed by a speaker — maybe the sales figures from every department, for instance, with a comparison to the previous year, to show they were flat — but this misjudges the benefit of presentations. People don’t really remember facts and figures from a talk. They remember the speaker’s excitement, and stories that illustrate a point. If you want people to know numbers, give them a handout to study beforehand (or after) and point them to ones of major interest: namely, the ones that illustrate the story you want to tell.
Second, PowerPoint is often used as a crutch. The reason people have slides saying “sales were flat last year” is that they don’t remember what they intend to say in their talks. PowerPoint serves as a mental trigger for the speaker to get through his stuff. But if you don’t remember what you’re going to say, chances are it’s not going to be a great talk. Better to know your stuff cold. You can use a small notecard to keep track of your main points, but if you don’t remember your main points, it’s possible you have too many. (Three is good. I know I’m pushing things with 7 in my main keynote talk, but that’s when I’m going for a full 50 minutes).
Third, PowerPoint can invite some massive fails. Speaking at a conference? Maybe the organization never received your presentation. Maybe the files got corrupted in your sending them, and no one notices until 10 minutes before your talk. Maybe you brought your own equipment but it’s incompatible with the venue sound system. Or maybe the equipment freezes up and won’t advance the slides. Maybe the organization has an incredibly fancy system with professional technology people advancing the slides, but they miss your cue and don’t do it at the right time (I have seen this happen). If you don’t already have your talk memorized, and know it will be interesting enough without the visuals, you are screwed.
So how to give up PowerPoint? You basically have to change how you design your talks.
Think of one main goal or take-away you want people to remember. If they remember nothing else, what should they be able to say was your point? Be very very clear on this. If you’re not clear on it, no one else will be either.
Then, think of a few ways (like 3!) you can illustrate or support this point. Stories tend to be the best illustrations, or surprising information people didn’t know, or other things that the brain finds easy to store. For anyone who’s seen my TED talk, this is why I tell the story about the broken water heater — it’s a good way to illustrate how quickly we can “find” an extra hour in the day when we absolutely have to.
Then, you might take time to address the main objections or concerns you know people might have about your material (if it’s that kind of speech — you’re presenting something new, and people might be tentative. In the op-ed world, we call this the “to be sure” paragraph, when you acknowledge the strongest arguments against your thesis, and speeches can have them too).
Then draw the audience back to the main point — possibly even with something personal that brings it all together.
When you design a speech this way, it’s actually not that hard to remember it — absolutely, 100 percent memorized. Yes, you do have to practice it. You have to practice it a lot. But think about it this way: You don’t have notes or slides about those stories you tell at cocktail parties all the time, right? Like that funny thing that happened on your honeymoon that you and your spouse tell to every newlywed couple you meet? (And isn’t it funny when your spouse is grabbing a drink, and you tell the story, and then he/she comes back from the bar and is introduced and darned if he/she doesn’t start telling the same story?) You can remember these stories because you’ve thought about the point, and the characters, and the build-up of tension, and the epiphany. And you’ve told them many times (too many times, as your spouse can attest).
That’s kind of how you want your talks to go: simple point, lots of stories, and lots and lots of practice.
For me, my major public speaking breakthrough came when I started thinking of myself as doing a one-woman show. I’m an act. And so, of course, I rehearse the act — just as any actress would for a show. I move around stage, I tell stories, I engage with the audience. People are there for me to entertain them, and hopefully learn something at the same time. And while one might not automatically think that your average corporate conference presentation has the same goal…more often than not, it does.
In other news: The Frugal Girl has a post up about which household tasks are worth prioritizing if you’re short on time, and which can be let slide. She suggests laundry, dealing with paper clutter (because of the possibilities of bills/forms/etc.) and cooking (because eating out is very expensive). Dusting, not so much. What would you prioritize, and what would you let go?
Podcast news — mine and others: The Best of Both Worlds podcast episode on Sarah’s Hurricane Irma evacuation is live. Ideally, this will inspire a few people to think about such questions as where you might go in an emergency, what you’d need to take with you, and what you’d do to prepare your house for the possibility of flooding.
I’m on Peter Shankman’s Faster than Normal Podcast talking time management for people who like to do lots of things. And I’m on I Want Her Job talking about professional life in general. Thanks for tuning in!
Photo: Example of a slide that would add nothing to my talk