There’s a lot of great content out there on presentation skills. For the most part, it focuses on two things: 1) Slide content and design or 2) Speaking skills like preparation, attitude, what to do with your hands and feet etc. What I rarely hear talked about is the intersection of slides and speaking – engaging the slides while you present. This matters, and someone needs to talk about it.
What the Presenter Does
The presenter is speaking away and at certain moments they click the remote and the slide changes, but little happens in their speech delivery to acknowledge or benefit from the slide. Usually this happens when they change to a new subtopic and the slide magically changes to reveal the next bulleted list which is promptly ignored by the speaker. (Of course, bulleted lists are evil so it doesn’t matter what you do with those.)
What the Audience Does
Here’s what typically happens for the audience…
You’re listening to the speaker, who may be quite good, and then the slide changes. Your reptilian brain detects an environmental change and instinctively diverts attention to the change to assess it as a possible threat. Now that you’re there, you begin to read and realize you’re no longer listening to the speaker and the words you’re reading may not be matching what they are saying anyway, so you send your attention back to the speaker wondering if you missed anything vital.
You’re Losing Them
Make no mistake. When the slide changes, you lose the audience for a moment. It’s instinctive so you can’t fight it. Rather than see it as an inconvenience, let’s use that instinctive impulse to our advantage.
Join Them at the Slide
Since their attention is going to the slide when you change it, why not invite them to look at it? Do it verbally or use a gesture to draw attention to the screen. As long as we’re all looking at it, describe what they are seeing. Their brain is trying to assess it, so help them rather than fight them. Tell them what it is they are seeing with a fairly literal description – “This is a customer frustrated with the check out experience at a local retailer.” If you’re using a hand to invite them to look at it, now drop your hand and invite all attention back to you. Now that you have them again, make your point which is supported by the slide. Be sure to tell them everything they’re seeing so they are satisfied there’s nothing left to see and are content to give their attention back to you. If there’s too much on the slide to do that in a few seconds, then there’s too much on the slide and you should at least be using animation to populate the slide a bit at at time – with a return of attention to the slide with every animation/addition.
You’re the presenter. You can and should be the one intentionally directing their attention where you want it to best serve the goals of the presentation. Be in charge of everything!
The world is filled with exceptions. Some presenters approach the interaction with slides as performance art. The slides change at exactly the right moment they utter some magical word or phrase and the audience naturally looks and understands the slide’s purpose in the moment. This is a great way to use slides. It requires a bit more design and delivery skill. If you’d like to see a great example of this, check out this TED Talk on procrastination. It doesn’t work as well on video, but live, the presenter is in front of a giant screen and his content relates to the slide very well. On video, you’re at the mercy of the director to show the screen.
Don’t Compete with Slides
If you don’t direct attention to and away from the slide, then you are competing with your slides rather than working as a team for a desired outcome. Why would you do that? (Answer: Because it’s modeled for you in most presentations you see).
The Magic Button
In addition to directing attention, PowerPoint has a magic button to divert all attention to you. Press the “B” key and the screen goes Black. This is of GREAT use. If you see people looking at your slide when they really need to be paying attention to you, click “B” (or most remotes have a “black” button) and get them back. Also good if you have to get between the projector and the screen. I have often given the majority of my presentation under blackout conditions because the screen was massive and centered in the room. DO NOT PLAY SUBORDINATE TO THE SCREEN. You’re in command. Just shut it down if it’s dominant and only turn it on when you want their attention on the screen.
These are the sorts of nuances that separate the great presenters from the good ones. Go ahead, be great.