The Two Technologies that have Ruined Presentations.
Updated: Mar 6
Let’s face it – we human beings find ways to let painful unintended consequences grow out of the technologies we invent. Email was supposed to save us lots of time and aggravation. Yeah right. Wasn’t the internet supposed to bring the World together through knowledge sharing? Uh huh. "Death by PowerPoint" is just another example of unintended consequences.
There are actually two technologies, the consequences of which make for the mind-numbing nature of the common presentation. They yield a slide-heavy, one-way, locked-and-linear presentation experience in which the presenter has a sort of artificial veneer. None of it fits the way we are designed to talk to one another, and what really suffers is the kind of human connection that leaves a deep impact on both listener and speaker.
In the mainstream, slides are not only seen as an essential part of presentations, they are treated as primary. They are big and central and constant. When covered with words, slides are mind-numbing. With or without lots of words, they continually compete with the speaker for the listeners' visual attention. The speaker is communicating a whole lot of important stuff with their face, hands and body – the kind of stuff that helps to gain respect, trust and rapport – but the slide constantly pulls the listeners' eyes away from this important stuff.
Yes, writing is a technology. Throughout history, most societies did not have this technology. They were completely oral.
Living in a society that has writing, we've let writing take over our presentations.
I'm not just talking about words on slides. I'm saying that the mainstream approach to presentations is based on a WRITE-and-recite model. We create a script of sorts, often embodied in our slides, and then we rehearse our scripted presentation as if to become a recording of ourselves.
Put the technologies in their place.
Writing, when used sparingly and early in the presentation development process, is very helpful. Write out your goal, some audience analysis and your core message. Write as you brainstorm ideas. Write out key messages. Then stop and move to oral preparation. Talk through your content in small sections while guarding against thinking of your words as a script. Don't strive for the perfect words. Strive for the perfect ideas. Let the words evolve and change.
Slides, when designed well and used judiciously, can also be helpful. But slides are typically not a must. Providing the audience a lot of time to look at you during your presentation is. So don't assume you have to have a slide up all the time. Think about slides late in the presentation development process, after you've established the key messages you might share. When you feel a visual aid will truly help an audience understand and remember something, design a slide.
The moral of the story is that the technologies themselves are not the problem. It's how we think about and use those technologies that makes all the difference.