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A counterintuitive view of slideshows

We’re often advised, very sensibly, that slides are there to illustrate a presentation, not to be the presentation. Everyone knows that the most boring presentations are those where the presenter appears to be led along by the slides, reading them out almost as if they don’t know what’s coming next.

So how do we make sure our slides are no more than illustrations? One good technique is to send them to our audience beforehand (or if that’s not possible, at least to prepare them as if that were the case). It’s a big leap for some people, but it’s a great idea.

The more a slide show actually gives away about the narrative of the presentation, the less likely we are to want our audience to see it beforehand. After all, why would they attend if they knew everything that was going to be said?

Conversely, however, the more a slide show merely illustrates the presenter’s story, the less problematic it is for the presenter if the audience sees it beforehand. This extends even to the point that seeing the slides can generate intrigue and encourage a more enthusiastic attendance.

As an example, supposing I wanted my audience to know how a blue widget worked. A good presentation would see me in front of an exploded diagram of a blue widget, explaining its operation. I’d talk through a (hidden) list of bullet points which would be on my presenter’s notes (or, better, in my head).

A bad (but sadly more typical) presentation would see me standing in front of those bullet points listed on a slide, reading them out, while the audience also read them, but at a different pace, not listening to me.

Now, in the first case, I could let my audience have a copy of my slide beforehand without risking them not needing to come to the presentation. Indeed, after seeing the diagram, they might be more likely to want to come.

In the second case, if they had the slide with all the bullet points, much of the reason for coming would be negated. All that would be left would be the chance to ask questions, and that might not be incentive enough.

So although it’s slightly counter-intuitive, we should ask ourselves: “If we wouldn’t want the audience to see the slide beforehand, because it tells the story, should we be using the slide at all?”