None of us can attend a presentation these days without immediately noticing a nervous speaker double checking the computer, projector and screen that will be a part of what ever is about to unfold. The equipment needed for a presentation to a group used to be simpler: little more than a podium and a glass of water. Today even a routine request to a college student to lead a brief class discussion on a reading is apt to trigger on onslaught of unnecessary slides.
It’s usually a good idea to ward off this impulse. PowerPoints are not the salvation of every talk. Indeed, its easier to argue that they are often the problem. Given the natural nervousness that comes with making any presentation, its no surprise that we look to a computer application to bale us out. But preparing an outline of a presentation for an audience to read is a weak strategy. Your presence can be more interesting than any set of slides, and in at least one rare instance, less lethal.
After the disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia during re-entry over Texas in 2003 a NASA investigation team looking at the accident cited, among other things, a PowerPoint slide prepared by Boeing that was supposed to summarize the risks posed by ice and foam hitting its wings during liftoff. This was usually a routine occurrence. Ice that had built up on the fuel tanks always fell off and hit the shuttle during a launch. The problem was the PowerPoint slide itself. It was so unclear as to be meaningless, leaving decision-makers in a fog of confusion. Had the risks been stated more clearly, a plan B might have been formulated to save the crew of that mission.
Fortunately, most presentations do not produce casualties. PowerPoint, video and computer illustrations can help reinforce main points. But they can also create their own distractions and disrupt the flow of ideas. As anyone who has sat through someone else’s vacation pictures knows, we are usually less interesting to others when we try to convert our stories into slides.
There are a host of problems with most PowerPoints:
- We use too many.
- Slides often compete with speakers rather than complement their ideas. Indeed, we are culturally addicted to screens. Our attention moves to them even when they have nothing useful to show.
- Slides can state something, but they don’t explain well. And oral messages should be all about rich and detailed explanations.
- Completing a set of slides gives us a false assurance that our presentational burdens have been met. But that’s a false impression. It’s the speaker’s obligation to be the center of attention, using all the resources of the voice and body.
- Making other people read your ideas is settling for second best; it’s passive when what an audience truly needs is passion.
- A presenter should not be the note-taker for an audience. People usually get more out of a presentation if they are the ones converting the presenter’s ideas into notes.
I once advised a person who was about to address a business group to forgo PowerPoints in favor of a knockout face-to-face presentation. When she told the executive that hired her she wouldn’t need to use computer and projection equipment, he hardly paused before insisting that she bring along something to show. It’s funny that we don’t require stand-up comedians to travel with visual props . Comedy presenters understand that its their presence that needs to be the center of attention. Even so, if a presenter feels like they will appear to be a Luddite without something to show, they should opt for the Ted Talk approach: only one idea on the screen at time, thoroughly proved, explained and fully amplified. Above all, slides must never compete with speakers. They should simply state in a few words what a speaker is about to turn into a verbal rhapsody.