Presentation question! To slide or not to slide?

Note, a version of this article was originally published on the Presentation Guru website.

To slide or not to slide?

don't panic in your presentation

Yes, I know… I’m asking for trouble here, because it’s an area fraught with some very entrenched positions. I’ve recently been reprimanded on a discussion forum for speakers for describing someone’s opinions as bigoted!  Harsh words indeed but I stand by them because of absolutist statements about always needing slides or never needing them. At best opinions tend to be dogmatic. In the same conversation, professional speakers suggested things like “If you need slides you don’t have a presentation”.

What arrogant tosh and b*****ks

Let me start at the beginning of this article that I’m agnostic about slides – and pragmatic. I’m a presentation skills trainer with a science background so it’s all about the empirics of what works. And what works depends on what you’re trying to do. If you agree with me here, you can probably skip most of this article to be honest!  And frankly I’d rather you did. Save us both some time.  🙂

A basic presentation problem

I want to get one quick and pointless pseudo-argument for not using slides out of the way before we get going…

some slides ruin your presentation

One of the problems I come across with the anti-sliders is that they’re looking at bad slides and saying “Those slides are bad, therefor using slides is bad”. But to be honest, that’s the same quality of logic as saying “Mice are grey; elephants are grey, therefore all mice are elephants”. Let’s admit there are times when slides are pretty much a rock-solid waste of photons and effort and move on, shall we? Bad slides are common, sure, but that doesn’t automatically mean all slides are bad.

If the slides are so bad they stop me getting much out of the presentation, and I can reach it, I admit I get my iPhone out for something useful to do. Typically that happans if:

  • the slides are there as a script for the speaker
  • the slides are so badly structured that I can’t read them or understand them
  • the slides are so badly designed that I need sunglasses or a coloured filter before I can cope!

You know the kind of slide.  You’ve seen them.  On a bad day you’ve probably written them.  Let’s assume your slides wouldn’t be like that for the rest of this blog!

The presentations-with-no-slides argument

To cite someone in that online debate I mentioned at the start of this blog – the slides are a distraction from the ‘main event’… the main event being the speaker.  I was so annoyed by the way this particular person said what they aid that I barely managed to resist commenting  that if he is such a boring speaker that slides are going to do that, he’s probably also so boring he need the slides to save the audience from reaching for the sniper rifles under their laptops 😉

But what about the idea that splitting an audiences attention isn’t a good thing? If people don’t know where to look they get confused and confused people can’t remember your content or act on it.  When you’re telling a very personal story, for example, it can be a remarkably handy tool to focus all eyes on you: a busy slide might be unhelpful at that point.

Fortunately the solution is simple – just add black slides to your presentation.  At the points when you want everyone to look just at you, just go to a black slide. (If you find you need to go to a black slide when you’re not expecting it, a less classy solution is to hit the B key on your keyboard. That blacks out your slide and hitting it again brings your slide back up.)

Of course, it’s not just the audience who suffers from splitting their attention with slides. I have a lot of sympathy for the idea that slides can make it harder for the presenter to concentrate. He/she is splitting his attention between

  • what they are saying
  • how the audience is receiving it
  • the slides themselves (some presenters need to see their own slides!)
  • the actual mechanics of pushing buttons and holding remote controls.

Sadly the solution here isn’t a quick fix – it’s a question of learning your tech. But in principle it’s eash… rehearsals are important. (No, they’re  more important than that. Seriously, get over yourself and rehears!

All too often I find people say they rehearse, and they probably believe it when they say it, but what they mean is that they skim over their slides on their computer, muttering to themselves as they click-click-click along.  That won’t do. What you need to do is go through the whole delivery process. Fire up your laptop, connect it to the projector or TV, hold your remote, and GO.

But here’s THE BIG THING… Professionals rehearse their technical set-ups, too!

Arguably worse from a productivity point of view, when presenters spend so much time faffing around with their slides that it takes over their focus in the design stage. They forget to spend time looking at other things. Twenty minutes spent titivating a slide might have been better spent refining what you’re going to say.

alarm clocks for timing your presentation during rehearsals

A little common sense and self-discipline gets around this, of course, but you need to be careful. It’s easy to get sucked down the titivation rabbit-hole!

Then there’s the question something called reception fatigue.  I’ve just invented that jargon to describe the dread that fills peope when the lights are lowered: they automatically start to disengage because of their prior experience with bad slide decks.

The only answer I’ve got to that is to use slides that don’t need the light dimmed and don’t make the audience feel despair before the first slide!

The presentations-with-slides argument

For me, making presentations is about doing two things:

  • stay true to the content
  • delivering that content as helpfully as possible to the audience.
me... presenting with a slide!

So let’s just start off with the obvious.  Some things are just easier to understand if they’re visible. There’s no amount of spoken word that is going to describe the beauty of a particular mountain range as well as a photograph.  For me, this is a killer argument. Alternatively, if I need to explain a cog system for example, a video of it on a slide is the obvious way to go – probably and animation. If I need to look at the difference between two very similar faces, putting  them side by side on the screen is helpful. And so it goes on. Some things just are visual things.

I’m not saying some slides don’t make me want to reach for a sniper’s rifle. Nor am I saying that everything is better with slides – just some things. As an example, I’ve just checked a slide deck I’m going to be showing at a conference I’m opening this Saturday and it has almost as many black slides as it does ‘content slides’. 

Here’s a slightly off the wall pro for using slides

Not long ago, I came across a fascinating new reason. It’s this idea… the process of trying to create a good slide can often help you get to grips with what you think and what you’re trying to say. If you’re trying to create good slides, it can actually focus your thinking. In short, the process of creating slides is a useful working tool in its own right, away from the presentation.

Oh, and a quick thought on the side is this… just because you’ve got slides doesn’t mean you have to show them! 😉

So what’s my conclusion? Presentations with slides or not?

For me it’s about the message and then the audience. What that means, is that presenters should take their topic and decide the best way to communicate it. Sometimes slides, sometimes not.


Fine, but how do I apply that, Simon?

Normally I’m an empiricist – after all I spent over 24 years as a researcher –  but just now I’m going to resort to my opinion and experience:  feel free to disagree!

The key question is whether you should use slides or not, right?  I’ve created checklist but it’s not in any particular order, so feel free to mess around with it 😉

  1. Is there some kind of overwhelming reason for going with or without slides? For example, are you going to get fired if you use slides? Are people going to walk out of the room on principle of you don’t have a slide deck?
  2. Are the expectations you need to match?  For example, will your audience assume that the reason you’re not using slides is because you can’t?  Or will they assume that you’re using them because you need them as a crutch? 
  3. Are there concepts and ideas which are so much easier to illustrate visually than to describe? If so, fire up the projector!

A quick and dirty test for this last point, is to ask yourself what you’d do if the electricity went down and you simply couldn’t use slides.  If you’d cope without much trouble, you might ask yourself if you need the slide at all.

mona lisa (retouched)

After all,  Martin Luther King didn’t use slides for “I have a dream”. On the other hand, if you’re presentation is about how good the brush strokes are on the Mona Lisa, it’s going to be a lot easier for your audience if they can see what you’re talking about and a zoom in of the painting will be helpful.

Back to the checklist…

  1. Are the logistics okay?  Can you control the slides in such a way that they don’t get in your way? Are you confident that you’ll not look like an amateur because you can’t handle the tech or the tech will distract you from your content?
  2. Are your legal ducks all lined up?  Are you absolutely sure you can use the images you’ve got on your slides? Are they good images?  Are they legal? Check that – don’t assume

That’s it. This bit of presenting is more art than science, perhaps.

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