Slides or not, speakers should always aim for dialogue

Slides or not, speakers should always aim for dialogue

Some pertinent feedback I received after the previous post has caused me to reflect back on what I wrote, even to see it in a new light. In any case, it seems to me that some clarification and amplification are in order.

First, I should make clear that most of my writing is aimed at the world of management in organizations. It is perhaps worth remembering that my work experience is as a manager, a professor of leadership, and a consultant to businesses seeking to maximize their human potential. In these contexts, as well as in my own speaking engagements, I am convinced that my overriding advice does indeed apply.

In general, I am convinced that we should seek to stay in a virtual conversation with our listeners, keeping everyone’s attention focused on us and the relationship we create with the audience. Far too often, the way we make and read our slides encourages people to follow primarily what is happening on the screen. This mode of presenting leads to the type of lifeless talks that so many participants have complained to me about, for as long as I can remember.

That said, some emails I receive show clearly that I make the mistaken assumption that readers of the blog are either students of business, managers in organizations, or public speakers. Fortunately, it turns out that my readership is a bit more varied. Thus, I am reminded on occasion that some members of my audience do other types of work. Of course, I understand that my thoughts on a given topic may not apply as well in their environments.

As such, several readers from the world of science and mathematics wanted to know if I thought that showing visually pleasing slides and staying in the “virtual conversation” with one’s audience were mutually exclusive endeavors. My somewhat radical position on this question is that making beautiful slides should not at all be a goal, and that it may even be harmful to a talk’s overall impact. However, I should emphasize clearly that my assertion applies specifically to the context of a business meeting or speech. Thus, I do not mean to state that my concept applies to every presentation or environment, nor do I feel qualified to make such a comment.

A second type of reaction to the previous post came from a variety of people who lamented that the use of PowerPoint had become such a widespread norm that it inhibits creativity. In their organizations, some of them write, there is often the expectation—either expressed or implicit—that slides would be used in “standard ways” when addressing an audience.

One reason I find these musings interesting is that they reflect my personal experience as a public speaker. On a number of occasions, when organizers of a conference requested that I send my slides in advance, they were surprised—even dismayed—if I told them that my intention was not to use any at all. In the end, I felt compelled to capitulate at least partially to their wishes, by sending a truly minimalist PowerPoint deck. As such, I was able to meet their demands and still focus primarily on maintaining a direct relationship with the listeners.

Perhaps next time, I will tell some personal stories from my speaking and teaching experience, or explain why I decided to keep slides out of my business school classrooms for more than 20 years.


Image: Flickr user JD Hancock