In the age of being over-connected, yet somehow under-related, we should all view presentations as an invaluable opportunity to enjoy some much needed human interaction.
So how come the first thing most of us feel before a presentation is dread, of “Death by PowerPoint”? Many presenters use PowerPoint slides with too many words. Then, they proceed to read those bullet points out loud, while you read them. It is a crutch to get them through the anxiety of public speaking, more about the presenter’s survival than the audience.
There are many reasons why both presenters and audiences find themselves in this kind of situation: unclear objectives, lack of preparation time, the challenge of creating the slides in the first place, and nerves.
“There are two types of speakers. Those who get nervous and those who are liars.”
― Mark Twain
We all understand the challenges of creating and delivering a good presentation, but do you really know why reading slides aloud does not work? Maybe we just need that extra push to really look at what we are doing, and to see value in making some changes.
Why is too much text a problem?
Text on slides interferes with the spoken words of the presenter. Research by Richard Mayer (2009) has shown that the use of words on a slide might hinder the audience’s ability to process information. Pictures combined with spoken words, however, improve it.
Show and tell, not tell and tell.
Mayer found that words, projected on a slide as we see in PowerPoint presentations, impair information processing because they have to be processed in the visual channel, and therefore compete with pictures for limited processing space. He calls this the “modality effect.”
When spoken words were presented simultaneously with text, Mayer found a second detrimental effect that impaired the processing of information. He suggested that this was due to the duplication of textual information, and called it the “verbal redundancy effect.” Think back to the crutch: The presenter feels that reading bullet points right off the slide helps him, but isn’t thinking about what it does to the audience. The reality, however, is that this does not help the presenter either.
We all struggle to be engaging, effective speakers, but if all we are doing is reading out text, how do you bring personality, energy and surprise to your presentation? Everyone can already see what you are going to say.
Keep them guessing, and you’ll keep their attention.
Presenter nerves are often a driving factor in this. Presenters with nerves (and let’s face it, that should be all of us, nerves show we care) likely spend more time on preparing their presentations—for instance, making slides. They may be planning to use these slides as speaking notes. Anxious presenters also spend proportionally less time on rehearsing their presentations. “If I put everything I need to say on the slide then I can’t forget anything,” is the rational. Sounds great, right? Well, no. Because this leads to your audience remembering nothing, apart from the fact that they were bored, but did remember to buy cat food on Amazon Prime.
What steps can you take to break the cycle?
Get Your Preparation Right
Preparation is a good thing, when done correctly. But quantity does not mean quality. Speaking anxiety (or excess nerves) may be related to the length of time presenters spend on preparing and rehearsing their presentations. Joe Ayres (1996) found that presenters with more speaking anxiety (“communication apprehension,” in his words) spend more time on their total preparation—mainly making speaking notes and then putting them on the slides!
Quality is the key. Confidence comes from spending much more of your preparation time analyzing the audience, understanding what is important to them, and rehearsing your delivery. Arguing with yourself about whether the title on Slide 15 should say “Cost Effective” or “Cost Efficient” is not preparation. It is preparation avoidance. Shocking as it sounds, actually rehearsing the presentation itself produces better delivery and content. All those adlibs and easy off-the-cuff-remarks that help make the best stand-up comedians funny don’t come from making it all up on the spot. They come from hours of practice.
At this point I can hear you saying, “I work better when I shoot from the hip,” or “I am more concise when I just get up and talk.” In reality the opposite is true. More time spent rehearsing means fewer words, since well-rehearsed presenters do not need the speaking notes. (Ayres,1996)
“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”
- Blaise Pascal. Mathematician, logician, physicist and theologian.
Use Simple Visuals to Support Your Message
Get you preparation right and you can use two different channels for information processing: The audio channel for
spoken words, and a visual channel for pictures and written words. Working memory connects the presented verbal information and the presented visual information. It is this active integration between pictures and spoken words—which Mayer calls the “multimedia effect”—that causes better processing and comprehension of the material.
Imagine how great it would be to go into your next presentation full of energy and confidence that you have a great story to tell, and that your audience will enjoy hearing. You can do it, but you must see the value in making a change. Yes, it can be scary, but it’s better than boring people to death with bad PowerPoint!