Using Slides as Transient Props, Not Reports

19.03.2018 |

Episode #2 of the course Presentations: Making slides that work by Barry Brophy


This lesson looks at the role slides should play in a presentation. To understand this, we must think about the audiovisual stream of information we are bombarded with every waking second of our lives and how we process this.

We listen and see simultaneously. We do it when we’re having a conversation with a friend, watching a film, or just walking down the street. Likewise, in a presentation, we can simultaneously take in a constant visual stream—looking at the slides or the presenter—and listen to what the presenter is saying. However, what we cannot do is listen to the presenter and read at the same time.

Try reading and holding a conversation at the same time; it can’t be done. So, when a presenter puts bullet points on the screen and speaks simultaneously, the audience will either ignore the presenter, ignore the bullet points, or ignore both. One of the mistakes presenters make is to write on the slides everything they want the audience to learn, but in a format that makes it impossible for them to do so.

One practical tip I always give to people is the following: Don’t open PowerPoint until you have fully planned your presentation. Decide on everything—audience, aim, outcome, content, timing, examples, demonstrations, stories, interaction—before you create your slides. This way, you are more likely to think of these slides as accessories to your talk, not the talk itself.


An Example from a Presentation

An example might help you to see this. What does the following slide remind you of? Think of a food.

Did you guess Cadbury’s chocolate? In the presentation—on food branding—in which this example was used, most people did. The color (“Pantone 2685C,” to be exact) is so synonymous with Cadbury’s chocolate that Cadbury’s actually tried to trademark it—unsuccessfully—in 2004.

This was a great opening slide for several reasons. First, it allowed the speaker to engage the audience by asking them a question. Second, it got the audience thinking and guessing, which is always good fun. Third, it cited an example that most of the audience would be familiar with. Fourth, it conveyed just a single idea, uncluttered by bullet points and other unnecessary decorations. Fifth, it was impactful and evocative. All of this from a purple rectangle!

Now imagine your boss asked—as bosses often do—to see your slides before a presentation. Would they be happy with a purple rectangle? Would it make sense? Would it even look like a “slide” in the conventional sense? Probably not. But in the live presentation, it was a good visual aid because it “aided”—the clue is in the word—the speaker to make her point. That’s all. Most slides—like the cluttered examples I showed yesterday—don’t aid the speaker or the audience at all, they just get in the way.


How Do You Make the Presentation Useful Afterward?

So, a slide should help you to make a point, nothing more. And if you don’t need an image or graph or diagram to do this, don’t use a slide at all, just speak. That’s what you do in conversations, and it works very well. But this still leaves us with one problem: What does the audience take away afterward?

Because humans are such visual animals, the audience’s memory of your presentation will be tied into what they saw. They will remember a series of images and reconstruct their memories around these. But if the slides you leave them have very little text, they might find it hard to piece together what you said.

The simple solution to this is to include descriptive text slides in your slideshow but don’t display them during the live talk. They can be easily hidden in the presentation but used by the audience afterward to remember the key points of the presentation.

Tomorrow, we will look at the power of images and how they work on three timescales: before, during, and after your presentation.


Recommended video

Life After Death by PowerPoint 2012 by Don McMillan


Recommended book

slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations by Nancy Duarte


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