How much do you really think about the slides you present in your technical talk?
According to Mayer’s “multimedia principle”, if you want to explain difficult concepts it is far more effective to present them not only in verbal format, but also in a visual way.
In other words – give your audience something to look at, not just to listen to.
In the technical fields that we all work in – this will hardly come as a surprise. You might not know the name of the learning theory behind it, but you will certainly know this idea, and as an experienced speaker I am sure that you have already prepared hundreds, if not thousands, of slides in your career to date.
Which is awesome.
But, now I want you to think about those slides, and I want to think about how you approached those slides.
Because over the years – of both building slides, and seeing slides of others – I have come to identify a few commonly held misconceptions about slides that are actually costing speakers connection with the audience.
Misconception #1: The slides come before the story
How many times have you said to yourself, “Right, I have a technical presentation coming up – I must go prepare the slides”. Only when the slides are ready do you start to think about what you are going to say.
This seems like a practical thing to do – and I have done it many times when I was starting out as a speaker. I did it because it felt tangible – get something down on paper first, then think about the story later.
However, I would suggest that this approach is back to front.
If you want to really connect with your audience, tell them a story. Tell them a story that they can relate to, and that helps illustrate why they should care about what you have to say.
Once you know the story you want to tell, only then start to think about how you can use different visual aids to reinforce the story – images, props, slides, whatever it takes.
What I often see happen – particularly when the speaker has highly technical content – is that the speaker will first prepare an extensive slide deck and only then think about the underlying story.
When the speaker prepares in this way, several things can go awry:
- the slides can become incredibly complex, technical and overloaded with information;
- the speaker may start clinging to the slides for dear life; and
- the slides can become so important to the talk that the speaker starts to stress about losing their place.
On the other hand, when the talk is driven by an underlying and compelling story, the speaker can stop worrying about the slides and start enjoying the story he or she wants to tell.
Misconception #2: the more words you have on your slide, the more intelligent you will appear to the audience
I used to be a tax consultant, and I used to talk about VAT.
There are aspects of VAT that are very difficult – and in the early days sometimes I had to talk about the difficult bits when I really didn’t master the subject.
And when I had to talk about those bits, there were occasions where I used to simply vomit the legislation on to a slide and hope for the best.
Because I believed in misconception #2, that the more words I had on the slide, the more intelligent I would appear to the audience, and the more convinced they would be that I knew what I was talking about.
This sounds like a highly flippant remark, but thinking about the majority of technical slides that I have seen over the years, it seems that I am not the only one.
Because quite frankly, we can’t really believe that the audience likes to see all those words on the screen?
So, in fact I would flip that misconception on its head.
When the audience sees a bunch of words on the slides, all they think is “Oh, crikey, another boring overcharged slide – do they really expect me to read this?? Where’s my iPhone, time to check my emails”.
Sure, they will recognise that you know how to copy and paste words on a slide – but do you really know what it all means for their business?
Think about it – and keep it simple!
Use your slides to illustrate rather than regurgitate.
Misconception #3: Slides are the only visual aid that you can use
Final misconception: you can only use slides as a visual aid.
I find this an interesting one. We have become so used to using slides as visual aids, that we have forgotten all the other possibilities, such as:
- flip charts,
- posters, and
Your choice of visual aid, over and above slides, will largely depend on the context: where you are speaking, the size of the room, the number of people. But I would hope that it would not be restricted to “but the audience are expecting slides”.
My personal favourite as an additional visual aid is the one-page hand out that summarises the key points of the technical talk.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not talking about a print out of all the slides onto one piece of paper that is A3 in size.
Rather a single sheet of A4, printed recto verso, on which there are handful of bullet points printed, or better still, prompts for the audience to note the main points on each section.
The advantage of that approach is in enabling the audience to take the technical content, and digest it in such a way as to be able to note down the key salient points. Such an approach will help the audience retain the information more easily.
So, as I leave you to head off and prepare for that next technical talk, I ask you simply to think twice about the slides that you prepare. Take a step back, keep things simple, and remember the basic premise that we are working on. The idea of your slides/ other visual aid is to present your subject in a visual way to complement what you are saying. They are not meant to make the whole thing even more difficult 😊
(Reproducing an article first published in the September 2017 edition of AGEFI Luxembourg www.agefi.lu)
 “A cognitive theory of multimedia learning”, Dr Richard Mayer