Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Tell it Better: 4 ways slides can interfere with your storytelling

Storytelling's the new big thing in communicating, social media, and public speaking. What's behind that? Many would say the TED conferences brought storytelling back, and as the coach of more than 100 TEDMED and TEDx speakers, I have to agree--if only because of the high interest I see among executives in all sectors who want, suddenly, to learn storytelling in the style of TED.

At the same time, however, I see companies and individuals clinging to their slides like life rafts in a raging river. Some stories can be told beautifully with slides. But I'm thinking of the executives who issue everything in a slide: the meeting agenda, a thought, a quote, the outline of what to expect, and more. If there's a thought to be expressed, it goes on a slide.

In a world where slides are as thick as fog, storytelling can cut through like a lighthouse beacon--if you let it. My own view is that the TED style of speaking and presenting works precisely because we, your audience, are sick of slides. Even slide users are sick of slides. So if you're going to bring storytelling back, you might want to consider the ways in which slides can interfere with that goal when used not wisely, but too well:
  1. Slides prompt reading, not telling--and we can read, too: One reason the TED form strikes awe in the hearts of executives: The realization that you cannot use slides as cue cards. You have to tell us things on your own authority and be convincing, without using the slide as a shield or a badge of credibility. The rule of thumb for TED conferences is that what's coming out of your mouth should not repeat what's on your slides. That's why audiences love the form, since we can read, too--and if we wanted to do that, we wouldn't be at the conference, or your presentation. The reverse also is true: When slides are all you use, your audiences may believe they can get all your content by reading the slide. Then you've really lost them.
  2. Slides divide our attention: Should I look at you or at your slides? Slides force the audience to make a choice. Even the largest slide projected behind you challenges our attention. Last time I looked, audiences for any presentation or speech have plenty of distractions as it is. Why add to them?
  3. Slide decks cut to the chase, rather than follow it: As noted earlier in this series in Tell it better: Storytelling with surprise and suspense, a big deck of slides almost screams for a summary slide at the beginning to detail what we can expect. Cutting to the chase in that informational way not only presupposes that your attention might wane, but also takes the element of surprise or suspense out of the equation. You're letting any drama leak right out of the story by doing so.
  4. Slides give my mind's eye (and its engagement) a vacation: Showing us what you're talking about takes away from your audience once of your most valuable presenting tools: Their minds' eye, or what I call the invisible visual. It's powerful to describe something so clearly that your audience can picture it in their minds, minus slides.Those self-generated images mean your audience is engaged actively, and the images themselves will last much longer in the memory than your projected slides.
Not long ago, I did a storytelling workshop for IBM's portfolio marketing managers in North America, with many executives also attending from its European, Middle East, and Asia Pacific sectors. In a world where slides are assumed, I used none for an entire afternoon. At the end, one of the senior executives came to me to say, "Because you didn't use slides, I had to listen to you. You had my full attention." And isn't that just what you want to hear from your audience?

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Alan Levine)

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