3 Advantages of Giving A PowerPoint-Free Talk

Presentation as conversation.

October 22, 2015

This week I unplugged, went acoustic, presented naked.

Okay, I didn’t really do any of those things - but I did give a big off-campus talk to an important group without a PowerPoint.

I had my slides all ready to go.  The deck was loaded up on the podium computer.  And these were good slides.  Lots of visuals and evocative images.  22 slides that I’d worked hard on to make each visually appealing.  No slides with lots of text.  Only images and words that supported a few key arguments and assertions.

I didn’t use these slides.

Instead, I left the screen blank and the computer off.  I walked out into the audience, and for the next hour I led a discussion.

How well did this work? From the feedback that I got - pretty well. The reality is, you can never really tell with these sorts of things. People always say nice things to the presenters.

Working hard on preparing the the deck no doubt helped the discussion. I had a plan about where I wanted to go and the points that I wanted to make. I just didn’t have the slides to help me get there.

Doing a big talk without slides is something that I’ve wanted to do forever. But I’ve always been too afraid. Too afraid to leave the comfort and security  of PowerPoint. Too afraid to defy the expectations of the audience. Too afraid that the experience of giving a would be painful for all involved.

What gave me the (last minute) courage to not start my slide deck was the book that I’m reading. (And was reading via audiobook on the drive to the venue where I gave the talk). The book is Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle. I’ll have more to say on this book later (I’m less than halfway through), but I will say here that Turkle’s book inspired me to turn my talk into a conversation.

Here are 3 advantages (or arguments) that I’m going to try to use to help me find the courage to give more PowerPoint -free talks in the future:

1.  Presenting Without Slides Changes the Focus From the Presenter to the Discussion:

The first change you notice when you present without slides is that you are free from the lectern, free from the stage. 

The room that this talk occurred was flat, with the attendees dispersed throughout the room in round tables. (They were served lunch after my talk).  I was able to wonder around to all the tables. 

Being free from slides enabled me to stand with 1 table, make some big points, and then invite (really insist on) discussion. 

When someone in the audience asked a question I would walk to them, standing next to them while they talked. 

I was able to get through all that I wanted say in the presentation, but the format gave more air time to the group.

Leading a discussion in this manner, particularly with a big group, requires both a clear idea of what you want to achieve in the discussion - and the willingness to manage the conversation. I’m not sure how well this would scale past about 50 people - or in a room that is not flat. It seemed to work pretty well in a flat room with 50 people.

2.  Presenting Without Slides Privileges Connection and Conversation Over Content:

Our ability to absorb information is limited.  

Whenever I give a talk, I am always thinking about the big things that I want to audience to leave with.

My hypothesis is that PowerPoint is limiting our ability to get a few big points across. PowerPoint pushes us to give more information, more details, and more conclusions.  

When we give a talk without PowerPoint we are free to spend our energy connecting with the humans in the room. It is easier to modify and modulate the message when we can pay careful attention to body language and other nonverbal cues.

A PowerPoint-free talk provides space for the other people in the room to put concepts and ideas into their own words. The points that you want to make get made, but the format is more conversational.

3.  Presenting Without Slides Is Less Stressful For Everyone:

When we present with a PowerPoint we are always trying to “get through our slides." We spend too much time on the early slides, and we rush to get through the remaining content because we have important points to make.

This rushing to get through the slides is stressful for the presenter and for the audience.

There is never enough time left for discussion and questions.  It is often awkward for the audience to ask questions if the questions do not conform to the current slide. The audience in a PowerPoint-free talk feels more invited into the discussion, as they will not be taking away time from the presenter finishing the deck.

Will I have the guts to go PowerPoint-free in the future?

Will groups stop inviting me to give talks if I give up on PowerPoint?

Have you tried to give big talks (or any presentations) without PowerPoint?



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