Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Why "but all my slides are pictures" isn't a smart public speaking strategy

When I'm coaching executives who are using slides in their presentations, I feel as if I've heard every excuse in the book. Most of them are designed to justify an enormous number of slides--often, too many to get through in one sitting. But of late, one excuse seems to recur with frequency, and I think it's a dangerous one: "But all my slides are pictures." And no, these speakers aren't photographers for National Geographic.

I'm not a fan of all-or-nothing solutions in general, and when it comes to presentations, it's rare that they work. But what bothers me is the subtext I can hear behind that "all my slides are pictures" rationale. Often, it seems as if it's about something other than images. Think again if these real reasons are behind your embrace of an all-image slide presentation:
  1. You know I'm going to object to a large number of slides. Sadly, making all your slides pictures doesn't soften the blow of a 300-slide deck. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but 300 pictures? More like a memory blur for the audience.
  2. "I notice that those TED speakers prefer pictures in their slides." Please don't blame TED and TEDMED for your picture-mania. Many people, myself included, think that the best TED talks are those without slides. What's more, the TED Commandments for speakers don't mention slides at all (a hint, perhaps) while TEDMED's speaker guidance says "I will use visuals to enhance my words, not duplicate them." TED speakers most often use pictures for things their words can't capture, not as repetition.
  3. You have one slide for every point you want to make, and think it won't be noticed in pictures. Many coaches, seeking to make each slide simpler, advise "one point per slide." But no one advocates one slide per point, even if they are visual. Trust me, we'll still notice.
  4. You're using your slides as cue cards. Many, if not most, speakers rely on their slides as cue cards. News flash: The audience can tell that you're doing it, and visuals don't change that.
  5. You think a picture makes the point better than you can. This can be true--just not on every slide. If you think you need a picture for every moment of your message, let's work instead on your confidence in yourself as a speaker. 
  6. You can't tell me why all your slides need to be pictures. What's the real rationale? Because just having all pictures is not a rationale for a good presentation, in and of itself.
I'm not against pictures, but they are not a magic medicine to be sprayed all over your presentation. I'd much rather see you challenge yourself to use your words to create what I call invisible visuals, the word pictures that are so vivid we can see them in the mind's eye. Those are the pictures that will stick with your audience long after your talk is over.