To Slide or Not to Slide (Is Not the Question)

“Should I use slides when I present or not?”

It’s a good question. But I’m not sure it’s the best one. The answer to that question ultimately depends on which ‘expert’ you ask. You don’t have to dig too deep ‘on the line’ to find an abundance of opposing perspectives on the topic.

I’m not here to tell you what to do. I’ve seen excellent communicators from both camps.    

I’m not here to teach you how to create great slides. There is an abundance of resources you can access to help you do that. 

I am here to provoke your thinking.

Here are four better questions to consider when deciding whether or not to press the “insert new slide” button.

1. Who Does This Serve?

This is a question about benefit 

One of the biggest criticisms of (insert presentation software) is that it is a crutch for presenters. That’s a harsh but fair criticism. Too often when I ask people why they have a slide deck, the honest response sounds something like “so I can remember what I’m there to say”. I have grave concerns about an audience remembering what you have said if you struggle to remember it yourself.

Who ultimately benefits from this slide, you or the audience? (Hint: the answer should not be you.)

2. What Am I Trying To Say? 

This is a question about message

You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. What is the first thing people think when they see this slide? You have limited time to get your message across, is this slide supporting what you are saying or taking focus away? What is the ‘one big idea’ you are trying to communicate and does this help? How is ‘what people are seeing’ in alignment with ‘what people are hearing’? If it helps, consider this:

“Your slide should pass the three-second rule of glance media.  Consider billboard advertising.  If an automobile driver can’t process that billboard in three seconds, he or she a) won’t digest or act on the advertisement and b) will probably wreck the car trying to read more than three seconds of information. Think of your audience as those drivers.  If it takes them more than three seconds to process your slide, you’re wrecking their chances of processing and acting on the material you’re presenting.” – Alex Rister

3. Where Do I Want People To Focus? 

This is a question about attention

People will read a slide or they will listen to you. They won’t do both. What do you want?

I’ve read and heard rules about how much text can be on a slide. Personally, I hold to the ‘less is more’ idea and prefer to use imagery that supports my key message rather than lots of text. But every now and then I want people to read a quote or to visualise a concept. I can’t escape having a lot of text on the slide. I’m ok with that as long as I’m aware of where the focus of my audience will be. 

When you have a quote or larger portion of text coming up that you want people to read, just be sure to frame the moment before the slide comes up.

Try something like “I’m about to show you a (insert text) that I want you take a moment to read and take in because of (insert important reason)”. Then when the slide comes up, pause and let people take it all in before you keep talking. 

4. How Else Could This Be Communicated?

This is a question about purpose

Does this need to be on a slide? Is there another way that this information could be communicated?

Rather than filling up a slide with words and definitions, could these definitions be printed on a card and handed out to people as they leave? Rather than showing all the numbers on a graph, could you just present the key data you are discussing? Could you send a document for participants to pre-read before the presentation with additional information?

I have found that the decision to ‘slide’ or ‘not to slide’ is less important than the intentionality behind how and why you ‘slide’. I hope these questions will help provoke that type of thinking next time you prepare.