Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What if you had to speak without your slides and charts?

"And this chart really tells the story," the speaker said. Maybe so, but she was 30 feet away from me, holding up an 8.5 by 11-inch sheet of paper with a graph that had more than 50 data points on it, an elaborate bar chart.

My sympathies were with her, up to the point that she decided that a lack of audiovisual equipment could be overcome with paper versions of her slides. She'd even put copies of them on each table, and they were just as unreadable up close as they were in her hands (and probably wouldn't have done too well on a large screen, but that's a point for another day). First reaction at my table: "Gosh, I hope she doesn't actually use these as slides."

It's not the first time I've seen speakers cling to their charts like a drowning woman far from shore.  On another occasion, a presentation was brought to a near-stop by a speaker who couldn't get her laptop to work with the projection system at the venue--and she seemed unable to speak extemporaneously on her topic.

There's a solid purpose for charts, graphs and other visual displays in presentations, particularly those based on data, as these were. But situations arise when charts and slides just aren't available to you, due to the type of equipment or the lack thereof, an overflow crowd or some other act of nature.  Then what?  Know your data and many ways to talk about them.  Here's a start at brainstorming other ways to get your data across when using charts isn't possible:
  1. Use the audience.  You can use audience participation to make a much more dynamic--and memorable--visual or verbal substitute for your charts.  Do a quick count, then tell the audience that if your sample were in this room, 1 person at each table would have voted "yes" on this question.  Ask people of varying heights to stand in for your bar chart while you describe the data.  Call for a show of hands to demonstrate proportions.
  2. Be the chart yourself.  You might just be able to make me "see" a chart with gestures, if it's simple and dramatic enough.  Draw in the air while you're talking, and of course, describe even more than you might otherwise.  You can draw an axis, use your hands to indicate higher or lower numbers, and more.
  3. Use props.  Look around the room for stand-ins: chairs, cellphones people can hold up, or other props that might help you represent your data points.
  4. Tell the data story yourself.  You'll need more word-pictures, more description and more talking to do this.  Tell me about the data points that surprised you, the ones you were expecting and the ones that seem like outliers.  Which were the toughest to measure? Put some drama and emotion behind the data (a tactic that works even if you do have charts to back you up), and I'm much more likely to follow and appreciate your data story.
  5. Compare with the live audience.  Yes, it's unscientific, but guaranteed to get them thinking.  Call out one of your research questions and ask the audience how it would respond...then share a result and explain it.
  6. Decide ahead of time which data you really need to know.  Many data-laden presenters like charts because all their data are in one easy-to-reference place.  But that's no reason to avoid choosing the three data points that are most important, and working to create dynamic ways to talk about them. This tactic works when you need to cut to the chase and just share the highlights, or when you may run into a technical disaster.
I don't always use slides, but when I do, I'm prepared to work without them. What do you do when slides and charts can't be used? Share your tactics and ideas in the comments.

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