Thursday, April 11, 2013

"Should I use slides even if I don't normally use them?"

I was coaching a speaker last year, a nonprofit CEO who's getting invited to larger and larger forums to share his message. He's a natural storyteller and likes to tell the story of his organization's mission with a mix of personal tales about himself and about the population it serves. He moves around when he speaks, rather than using a lectern, and uses gestures and vocal emphasis to underscore his points. But he was worried about slides, even though he never used them.

"Should I be using slides?" he asked me. "I don't use them now, I never have used them, and I don't really want to start." So what prompted the question? "I'm now on stage following big-time speakers, speakers who've been at TED or who sell a lot of ebooks or are recognizable thought leaders, and they have some pretty slick slide decks," he answered. "I'm wondering if I need something similar to break into the big time?"

I'm coaching some of the speakers for next week's TEDMED conference, and that same question has already come up. Speakers for the TED conferences can go back and look at previous talks, and if they are used to slides or feel as if many speakers use them, there's a natural tendency to think, "Maybe I should have slides myself," even if they had not originally planned to do so. That second-guessing might be part of the normal fear of public speaking, that exposed feeling we get when we put ourselves out there on stage.

In fact, both the TED Commandments and the TEDMED Hippocratic Oath for speakers barely mention slides, although TEDMED takes the time to urge speakers to pledge "I will use visuals to enhance my words, not duplicate them." Both conferences want your slides only if they add to your presentation, not form its entirety--and speakers sans slides are often the most popular. 

Why is that? If you're not reading from or focused on your slides, you'll connect more directly with the audience, via eye contact, posture and language. Your style will get more conversational, and thus more engaging. And if there's going to be a contest between which is more compelling to watch--a human face versus a slide--the human wins hands down.

So here's what I tell the speaker who doesn't use slides but thinks he might need to do so:
  • Will the slides do something you can't? If the slides support and even expand on what you're saying, that's one possible reason to include them. If they merely echo your words, you don't need the repeat--and you truly don't need them to say in writing what you are saying out loud, one of the things that most annoys audiences about slide-users. One of the earliest TED talks I saw was by Hans Rosling, who uses unusual statistics and animated bubble charts to help the audience see his points, a good example of graphics that support the talk well. Wall Street Journal reporter Robert Lee Hotz, speaking at TEDGlobal about his trips to Antarctica, shows pictures of a place we're unlikely to see--a fantastic reason to use slides--but they support, rather than supplant, his words. Here's a telltale sign: If you have one slide for every point, chances are you don't need them all. Remember, one of the things that audiences like least is the feeling that the speaker's just reading the slides.
  • Will you make yourself uncomfortable by adding a new variable? There's so much going on in your body, mind and senses when you speak that I advocate avoiding the addition of new variables, particularly when you're getting ready for a high-pressure talk, a talk you've never given before or when you're close to the date of the speech's delivery. Why add something new, something that isn't a habit, into the mix? For many speakers, that new variable will be enough to distract them, make them uncomfortable or worse, help them forget what their focus is.
  • Can you use invisible visuals or other tactics instead of slides? Invisible visuals is the name I give to word pictures, those things that speakers describe so well, the audience members can "see" them in their minds' eye. They're stronger, and far more memorable, than any slide. You also can use props, gesture and even movement. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Thomas Frieden, a speaker at TEDMED 2012, used no slides but is a fantastic gesturer, sketching out a progression of data in the air during his talk to underscore it. No pictures necessary.
You'll find more tactics for how to fly without slides on my public speaking blog, The Eloquent Woman. Let me know if you need a speaker coach, with or without slides: Email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz to get ready for your next big talk or presentation.

(Photo of a slideless presentation by CDC Director Thomas Frieden, MD, via TEDMED)

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