Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Lose that gesture: Presenters, stop pointing to your slides

"But...I have to point to my slides," said the speaker I was coaching. "It's expected. Everyone does it."

He's not the only one who believes that, either. As a Washington, DC-based speaker coach who often works with policy wonks, academics, researchers and other experts, I find myself reminding speakers and presenters again and again "Don't point to your slides." And by point, I usually mean that awkward gesture in which you attempt to continue facing the audience while you fling one arm up and to the space behind you.

Naturally, those who make this movement reflexively want to know why. Here's my rationale:
  • We can see your slides just fine: No pointing needed. In some cases--say, at a TED or TEDMED conference--the screen's so huge there's no chance of missing it. But even in the average conference room, your slides are visible. Trust me on this.
  • Pointing doesn't add to our understanding: Even if there's a particular place you want us to look on the slide, you can talk us through it (and no, this isn't an excuse to get out that laser pointer). You describe, and let us do the work to find what you're talking about. In that way, you'll be better engaging the audience instead of doing all the work for us.
  • The movement may distract us from either your words or your slide: If the audience is looking at your slide already--highly likely--then your gesture may draw eyes away, and vice versa if they were looking at you. 
  • Pointing isn't your best tool for emphasis: I'm much rather see you consider pauses, vocal variety, cadence, volume and other tactics to emphasize the point you're making.
  • Pointing in this way underscores how closely you are working from your slides: In my experience, presenters who don't know their slides, haven't practiced, or generally hang on to the slide deck as a path through the presentation are more likely to use this gesture. If that's the case for you, remember that you may be letting the audience in on your presenting habit.
  • You'll do better at engaging the audience: Turning away, even partially, may cause you to break your eye contact with the audience. If you work at facing forward and even gesturing toward us, you'll have our attention.
Bonus reason: Your shoulder will thank me later. But is it really expected? Not by your audience, it's not. Try omitting the point-to-slides and see if anyone notices, including your colleagues who do the same.

If you're trying to reform this often reflexive gesture, try gesturing toward the audience instead, with arms wide and palms up, as a means of emphasis (and to keep your body focused forward).

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