29 June 2014

Who Says You Need to Use Slides?

What’s the first thing most people do when they are asked to make a presentation? Most likely, they open up PowerPoint and start creating slides, without even thinking about how best they can visually represent their ideas. As I have written before, this approach usually leads to poor presentations. The best way to design beautiful and meaningful slides is to get away from your computer and plan analogically, that is, with pen and paper. This approach will help you think creatively about your message. 
Story first
Before even focusing on the slides, you should follow another step. You should work on the message you want to communicate. Slides are secondary. Only after you have created a story that works can you start thinking about the slides. Slides are only necessary if they help you communicate your message better. If you think your audience would better understand you points if they are backed by some visuals, then go for it. Otherwise, prepare yourself for a great talk with no slides at all. Who says you have to use slides? This is especially true when it comes to short talks. Scott Berkun—author of Confessions of a Public Speaker—tends to present without slides when he speaks for 20 minutes or less. 

The shorter the talk, the simpler your presentation should be.          — Scott Berkun

The simplest form of communication is when you remove all of the possible barriers between you and your audience. When designed with the audience in mind, slides have the power to amplify your message. But when they are not, they become an insuperable barrier. It might sound scary to present “naked", especially to those who are used to look at their slides not to forget what comes next. However, slides are not meant to be the presenter’s notes—they are for the audience.
In two of my favourite TED talks the speakers made great presentations without the help of any visual displays. Sir Ken Robinson’s How Schools Kill Creativity and Bryan Stevenson’s We Need to Talk About an Injustice are great examples of the power of a great story. They proved you can make a super presentation with no slides at all. Would their talks have been better if they were given with the support of some visuals? Would the audience have enjoyed them more? Having no slides forced Robinson and Stevenson to develop their ideas into a clear structure. 
Go “naked”
If you have been following my blog, you certainly know that my heart sings when I see a well-designed presentation. I believe the ability to visually express one’s ideas doesn’t only have an aesthetic function—it also helps people understand better and remember more. Research goes towards that direction too. However, the fact that we understand a concept more easily when it is presented to us both verbally and visually doesn’t mean we need to use slides in any presentation. If you want to know when you should be using slides and when you shouldn’t, craft your story first. Then ask yourself: would my audience understand my message better if I use slides? If yes, go for it and design great visuals. If not, present “naked”. 

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IMAGE: Garr Reynolds via Presentation Zen

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