“I hate the way people use slide presentations instead of thinking. People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint.” - Steve Jobs
It’s hard to argue with the man. But for the vast majority of us, PowerPoint has become a necessary evil, a public speaking companion as ubiquitous as the podium itself. Show up at a major presentation without one and the audience may give you a look like you’re half naked. As a public speaking coach, my job is to show clients how to make a slideshow an asset that compliments their narrative, not allow it to become a misused and abused crutch.
We’ve all heard the advice, “don’t read your slides,” and “don’t flash dense passages of text up on the screen.” That’s a given, although I’m still amazed that those rules still have not reached a large contingent of people in mainstream business. For some people, not being able to read the words in their slides must be the public-speaking equivalent of letting go of the side of the pool in the deep end – just plain scary.
The following tips and strategies represent a compilation of my most-frequently-made coaching suggestions to clients during a training session.
The Screen Behind You Is Like The Sun – Don’t Stare At It: If your slides are projected on a screen behind you, turning to look at them means one thing: you’ve turned your back on your audience. That’s a no-no. The majority of your time should be spent making sustained and meaningful eye contact with your audience. It’s the human connection here that matters. That’s where your powers of persuasion come from. If you don’t have the benefit of your laptop or a cheat monitor in front of you to see the slides, then a brief look back to familiarize yourself is fine. But don’t use the rear screen as an oasis to avoid eye contact with the audience (something many do subconsciously) or turn into a tennis match spectator and have your head rhythmically turn back and forth between the screen and your audience.
How You Start, What You Punch & How You Finish: In each of your slides, these three elements are the most important to know precisely. Most people fall down the strict-memorization-rabbit hole in which every word of their talk track is committed to memory. Why put that kind of pressure on yourself? If you lose your place, or forget a word, the results could be ugly. Know exactly the first concise, declarative line that launches you into each slide. Whatever you do, don’t click to advance the slide, stare at it for a moment and then say something like, “Okay, so let’s spend a little time talking about…” That is not a dynamic way to begin, in fact because virtually everybody else does it that way, it makes it thoroughly forgettable. In general, there’s way too much “talking about what we’re going to talk about.” Wasted time, wasted breath. Figure out on each slide what your big punch line is and create a little dramatic build to its reveal, and when you reveal it, deliver it with a slower, more emphatic pacing. Don’t race over it. Then, make sure you never trail off at the end of the slide as if you ran out of material mid-sentence. The finishing line should be as crisp as your open, and if it can tease or foreshadow the content of the next slide before you’ve even clicked to it, so much the better.
If You Build It, They Will Stay (Attentive): Throwing up (pun intended) gobs of text, data, bar graphs, pie charts, thumbnails and other kitchen sink content onto the slide all at once is a great way to optically overwhelm the audience and get them to disengage. The minute they start focusing their attention on something other than what you’re not talking about, you’ve lost them. We all know the feeling. It also happens when you hand out a copy of the printed deck at the beginning of the meeting and while you’re discussing the nuances of a certain problem and Page 3, they’re reading the conclusion on Page 27. To avert this disconnect between the eye and the ear of your audience, make visible only what you’re discussing at the moment. Create builds for the points you will go on to make later in the slide.
You may be thinking to yourself, who is Steve Jobs to criticize? He used Keynote (Apple’s version of PPT) in his big presentations. True, he did. But if you look at his decks, virtually all of his slides contained just one big number, one image and rarely any text. To him, words on a slide were like too many buttons on an iPod: something to be eliminated.
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