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Missing the PowerPoint of public speaking

Sliding into submission

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When I was at school, we still had blackboards. Some of our teachers came in, talked to us, and then expected us to remember what they'd said; we didn't. Others came in, wrote stuff on the blackboard for 40 minutes, at the end of which we were in possession of our own hand-written copy of their notes, which, perhaps, one or two of us understood.

The good teachers did both, but never together. They would explain something, involve the class in question and answer discussion, then illustrate it with short blackboard notes. When everyone had copied the note, they'd discuss the next step. Then make more notes.

The speakers we remember best, are (naturally) the entertaining ones. But remembering the speaker is not necessarily the purpose of the event; for a lot of people, the content of the speech is why they paid the entrance fee. And I find that the people who teach me new stuff, are those who work interactively.

It's adding to the challenge if you expect to make a PowerPoint-based presentation which is as good as one which involves you making eye contact with your audience. I think this isn't a question of 'bad workman' - I think it's inherent in a situation where you're forcing the audience to decide: "Do we watch the speaker? or watch the screen?"

There are dozens of simple tricks for effective seminar presentation. One of the prime requirements is that you know what the audience wants to get from the talk. And it's a big mistake to imagine that the seminar organiser knows. One of the worst presentations I ever did was to an audience of technical librarians in Portugal, on behalf of a publisher who had started doing e-books.

My mistake was to assume, as the publisher had done, that technical librarians would be interested in technical books. Wrong! - they were interested in technical material, and the entire audience had stopped using "books" as a source of material years ago. They used online databases, and their customers wanted a particular section, not a whole book. "I never use any books. Well, maybe a Swedish-to-English dictionary, sometimes," mused one Scandinavian delegate afterwards.

This became apparent only a minute or two into the presentation, because I always make a point of engaging the audience, by asking questions: "How many of you...?" Too late! - I was chairing five other speakers, all of whom had prepared speeches, all about books. We bored the audience rigid, and there was nothing I could do. If the speakers had not brought their PowerPoint slides along, they could have done a session which would have produced a good response from the audience.

Naturally, I accept there are exceptions to my rule about "No slides!" - and it may even be the case that a large number of "incompetent workmen" are enabled to do presentations by having a competently-designed PowerPoint file.

For example, a presenter may have very poor public speaking skills and lose the thread if they feel the audience is actually looking at them. In this case a smoke-screen may be needed. You could persuade me that their knowledge is such that it's better they do a stilted, PowerPoint-propped talk than not do the talk at all.

But I'd be inclined to doubt that, without good evidence of real life examples.

My fundamental assumption is that most good presentations differ from bad presentations in one important aspect: interactivity. If you engage the audience, get them to respond in some way, you'll hold their attention and get good feedback.

I don't know how you'd set up a PowerPoint show that would allow that flexibility. In other words, I think PowerPoint is a strait-jacket which enforces mediocrity even on a good speaker. Unless, of course, it's a good joke in itself. You might also like to read Ed Tufte on why tools are not neutral. ®

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