The more times I give my standard speech on time management, the more aware I am of something curious. When I speak without PowerPoint—just me up on the stage, trying to entertain and instruct people—I enjoy the experience far more than when I use slides.
The audience has a different energy. I think that’s because I have a different energy.
According to Nick Morgan, a speaking coach, president of communications firm Public Words, and author of the forthcoming Power Cues, I’m on to something.
First, he notes, anyone who speaks should know this: "A speech is a very inefficient way to impart information." He cites studies finding people retain just 10% to 30% of what they hear. But slides don’t boost that with visual aids. "We take most of the important information about a speech visually, yes, but unconsciously—and it comes from watching the speaker," he says. "We form unconscious impressions about what matters to her—what her intent is, what she’s passionate about—and that’s what we remember."
Human beings aren’t good multi-taskers. "Showing people slides demands that an audience multi-task," Morgan says. By asking them to read what’s on the slide and trying to take the speaker's message, "it actually interferes with retention of the important kind of information we really need to get from a speech," he explains.
Indeed, as Scott Berkun, a frequent speaker and author of The Year Without Pants, recently wrote in a blog post, "Look at any list of the best speeches of all time and you won’t find a single use of slides or other props. Of course slides and presentation software hadn’t been invented then so it’s unfair to make a direct comparison. Yet the question is easy to ask: would these speeches have been better if they were narrated over slides? In many cases, no."
Of course, as Morgan notes, "Because the norm is to use slides, going without is a high-wire act. You have to be good. You have to be passionate."
"Many speakers use slides to mitigate fear," Berkun writes. But, "If you work hard to have clear points, and you practice it’s unlikely you’ll forget anything important. Even if you do forget something, only you will know. Since there are no slides, as the speaker, only you know what you planned to say."
"We retain much more information reading something than hearing it," Morgan says.
The good news is that public speaking is a skill—and anyone can become good at it. Preparing for a slide free talk just requires a bit more practice.
"Think about what you’re passionate about, and then think about what problem the audience has for which your passionate viewpoint is the solution," says Morgan. "Begin by talking about that problem, and then move on to your passionate solution."
A few main ideas that someone could recite afterwards is all you can hope an audience will retain. Hone your speech down to its essence, and plan on repeating this essence a lot.
Human beings have been telling each other stories since our days sitting around fires in caves. It’s how we naturally absorb information and draw conclusions, and while there’s plenty to dislike about that (bad laws are often inspired by anecdotes) smart speakers don’t try to change human nature alone. Think through a series of stories that will take your audience on a journey where you want them to go, illustrating your main points in engaging ways.
Practice the speech alone, then assemble some friends to listen. You can see when they laugh and when they meet your story with blank stares. They can also videotape you. Watch yourself, then practice again. You want your speech stories to take on the quality of that funny story you always whip out at dinner parties. You don’t need to study notes and read a slide to tell that one, because (as your spouse can attest) you’ve told it a dozen times before. That’s how well you should know your speech.
And when you know your speech that well? You don’t need slides.