Time For a Change #21: Reaching the Other Side Without Slides

by William Reed on July 18, 2012

Have you ever kept 200 executives waiting? It isn’t a nice experience, and if you are a presenter it can be something of a nightmare. Some years ago I was the second of two speakers to a group of about 200 executives in a large city in southern Japan. The first speaker used PowerPoint from his PC, and I was planning to use Keynote from my Mac. I was told that all we needed to do was switch cables when my turn came to speak, so there was no need for a break between speakers. My slides were ready, but I was not ready for what happened.

Who knows if it was the projector, the cable, or the computer, but immediately after I was introduced as the next speaker, the air froze when I realized that they couldn’t get my slides to display. I had 200 executives waiting for me to start, the assistant in a cold sweat trying to connect the cables, and a presentation that I might be forced to deliver without slides. Unfortunately, my presentation depended entirely too much on my slides.

We did manage to get the slides on the screen after about 5 minutes, but it was one of the longest 5 minutes I can remember as a speaker. Even today I don’t remember what I presented, but I vividly remember the folded arms, the impatient expressions, the frequent glances at watches, and the feeling of near panic deciding whether to wait for the slides, or deliver entirely without them. In retrospect, had I prepared to deliver with or without slides it would not have been difficult, and might have been more fun without slides. As it was, I would have been happy to have an ice pick to break the ice that formed in those unfortunate five minutes.

Though it doesn’t happen often, you are much better off if you are prepared for if and when…

  • You don’t have time to prepare slides
  • The slides you have aren’t any good
  • You have to make your presentation shorter/longer
  • The equipment isn’t working
  • You have an idea to share, but no computer or projector
  • You want to try it without…

Start with Why?

If you have to present without slides, the most important question to start with in your preparation is to know why you are there. Hopefully you have something you want to say, because you want to change the world in some way. Realistically, the reason may be that you have to present as part of your job. In either case you will want to do your best and present something of value to the people in your audience. This is the same talking to a large audience or sitting around a table. Knowing Why will help you pinpoint your passion. Fnd the part that you care about and it will be easier to convey why you, and why now. Otherwise you might as well just send your message as an attachment to an e-mail.

Show and Tell

Long before the days of slides and presentations, I remember well from elementary school the time for Show and Tell. Kids would bring things from home and tell the rest of the class something about it. No one ever taught us how. That wasn’t necessary because it is easy to talk about something that you want to show to others. Many adult presenters spoil the show by showing off, or telling too much. Technology sometimes takes away from a presentation by breaking off the emotional connection, or even masking the lack of real content.

You can often connect better with your audience by sketching your ideas in your own hand. A lack of artistic skill often prevents people from doing this, but a rough sketch conveys more personality and humor than any stock photography from the Internet. Diagram your ideas, and be sure that your diagrams lend clarity not confusion. You can also effectively demonstrate ideas with your face, hands, and body. People much prefer an animated speaker to a talking head. And as Hamlet said, “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.”

Dialog takes you directly into the scene, which is why movies are mostly made of dialog. Use it liberally by sharing what people said. Drama engages the mind, so the more you can dramatize what you talk about, the more engagement you will get from your audience. Dramatizing is a skill, and not to be confused with using histrionics for effect. Exaggerated emotional behavior calculated for effect will turn people off faster than you can count to three. Use stories in your presentations, but make sure that they have a heartbeat. Stories should stand on their own, that is they shouldn’t need slides to be understood. They are your best chance to bring your presentation to life, to keep people on the edge of their seats, and to gain a permanent seat in memory.

Experiment with different writing tools and surfaces. Write large and write small. Above all practice in all kinds of environments, especially when you can be relaxed and conversational. It can be lots of fun to pull out your favorite writing tools and surfaces, and then strut your stuff!

Improvising and Improving

The best way to move beyond slides is to also move beyond the script! Learn how to improvise. It is a skill which seems inborn in the personality, but in fact is learned over time. Improvisation is practice taken to such a high degree that it looks effortless. It comes to the person who is thoroughly comfortable with the material. An excellent guide to help you learn how to improvise as a presenter is Improvise This! How to Think on Your Feet so You Don’t Fall on Your Face, Mark Bergren, Molly Cox, Jim Detmar.

Improving is just as important. It is will keep you on an upward curve. Watch speakers on TED.com Ideas Worth Spreading—Riveting Talks by Remarkable People, and you will see that many of the best speakers use slides only sparingly, if at all. Watch speakers who present well without depending on slides and you will learn volumes on how to improve your own presentations. Learn how to doodle and draw from the unsinkable Sunni Brown! http://sunnibrown.com/. A useful skill to have in business presentations, whether before a large group or in a small meeting, is solving complex problems with simple pictures, which you can learn from Dan Roam, author of the bestselling book The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures, http://www.danroam.com/.

Back to Slides

Once you have gained confidence that you can do pretty well presenting without slides, possibly even better without slides, then it is time to revisit slides and see how they can possibly enhance your presentation without interfering with it. Be a Slide Minimalist. Lean how to do without, and then you can be more effective with. The key is to learn how to be great with or without slides.

Learn to use the “B” key on your keyboard, which will blank out your screen until you hit it again. That brings full focus on you as the presenter, and prevents the distraction of flickering shadows on the screen when you hand or body stands in the way of the projector. If you must use slides then learn to use them well. Two excellent guides to begin with are Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen and Cliff Atkinson’s Beyond Bullet Points. But before you dig into that and fall back into slide dependency, go back to If and when…? Prepare yourself to present at your best any place and any time.

Download a summary of this article and tips on reaching the other side without slides at  NO SLIDES MANDALA 

William ReedWilliam Reed specializes in applying practical wisdom from Japanese and Asian culture to solving the problems of modern business and living. He is the author of the Flexible Focus column on Active Garage, the syndicated column Creative Career Path and the book A Zoom Lens for Your life. William is also a Representative Director and Co-Founder of EMC QUEST Corporation, which provides Coaching for Communication and Change, World Class Speaking™, and Accelerated Action with GOALSCAPE™.

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  • Hugh Purser

    (adapted from Hamlet: speak the speech)

    Perform your pitch as I have shown you now

    To trip off your tongue you must allow;

    Don’t wave your arms around like windmills,

    Use gentle and deliberate skills;

    While your passion is all important,

    A torrent or whirlwind will affront;

    So aim to temper it a fraction,

    And deliver it with smooth action;

    There is nothing worse from the start

    Than to hear that passion torn apart;

    An ear splitting squeal that has the crowd

    Reaching for their earphones, it’s so loud;

    Reduced to combination of mime

    And background noise or permanent whine;

    On the other hand, don’t be too tame,

    Let your intuition guide your game;

    Match action to the word, notes aside,

    And the word to the action (or slide);

    Keep it natural, modest and true,

    Overdone it’s just some theatre cue;

    Poor delivery and timing, weak joke,

    May win a laugh if you’re a lucky bloke;

    Not so the key decision makers

    From whom your pitch is seeking takers;

    Causing one of those to grieve is worse,

    Even broad applause can’t reimburse;

    Many may praise you, I don’t contest,

    But are they the ones who will invest?

    Focus on the core evidence,

    Don’t divert into irrelevance;

    Laughing at your own jokes, perdition,

    Exposing pitiful ambition;

    Now get ready with these things in mind,

    Audience hungry for your word you’ll find.


  • jull sanders

    Once my colleague and I were at the conference, where he had to make rather a complicated technical presentation, but one hour before his turn to speak, it was found out they do not have the proper softwqre to demonstrate. I wish nobody had anything like this experience! Since that time for any conference we attended we prepared several variants of presentations to be secured in case of unexpected technical difficulties. Though the result was still brilliant and the audience applauded in the end of my colleague’s presentation, a lot of grey hair was added to his head in that one hour. Thanks for the article as it’s really valuable for those who often deal with presentations.

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