Tips for engineering presenters: the question of slides

Shortly I’ll be giving a presentation. This week, I received an email from the administrator. It began with these words: “You will be receiving an invitation to access a Dropbox folder shortly. This is for you to upload your PowerPoint presentation to in advance of the conference.  Please also to bring a copy on a USB stick as a back-up”.

Note the assumption that because I’m giving a presentation, I must be using slides (and, incidentally, there is a further assumption that these will be in the form of PowerPoint).

I’m now receiving reminder emails, presumably because I haven’t yet uploaded my slides. I haven’t uploaded them because there aren’t any, nor will there be.

The reason that I’m not using slides is that I am not saying anything that requires visual presentation. I don’t need graphs or maps or video clips, etc. I’m using words. I don’t need slides for words, because I can use a different form of technology: my voice.

I could, of course, put some of those words onto slides. But then I will present the audience with a decision: do they look at me or at the screen?

I want them to look at me because then, and only then, I can establish eye contact. By making eye contact, I can gain feedback in the form of visual cues from their eyes and faces. I can tell, are they interested in this bit? are they disagreeing with me? are they enjoying this? and so on. And I can then adjust my presentation to the suit the evolving situation.

Even those members of the audience with whom I don’t make eye contact will be able to sense that I am making contact with some people — and somehow that is often sufficient to make all the others feel involved too. They sense that there’s communication going on here.

If I use slides, I will have to move to the side. I will literally and metaphorically marginalise myself. It won’t be my presentation any more, it will be Microsoft’s. If you’re making a presentation for, say, marketing or sales purposes or to get a job, making yourself forgettable in this way isn’t recommended.

In small groups — a presentation to three interviewers, for example — the decision about when to look at slides and when to look at the presenter is frequently a cause of awkwardness, even embarrassment.

But doesn’t everyone use slides? In everyday language, ‘slides’ has become a synonym for ‘presentation’. (Presumably, the administrator I quoted above heard the word ‘presentation’ and thought, in Pavlovian fashion, ‘slides’). That isn’t, however, a sufficient rationale for using them: if you always follow the herd, you’ll be no better than the herd. Why would a presenter want to be bog standard?

When a presenter loads up some slides (usually consisting of what seems like a million bullet points) I don’t hear people say, “Oh, good, we’re going to see yet more slides!”.

I’m not recommending the opposite extreme, i.e. never using slides. My point is simply that slides should be used optimally, as the result of a decision rather than by default. If you want to display a graph, you do indeed need a slide, for that part of the presentation.

The key questions, then, are: do I need slides? If so, for which parts of my presentation?


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