Death To PowerPoint: How To Speak Like A Pro Without The Slides

When you know your speech, you don't need to rely on PowerPoint as a crutch.

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.

Step One: Get your subject matter right.

"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."

Step Two: limit your points.

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.

Step Three: think in terms of stories.

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.

Finally, practice. A lot.

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.

[Image: Flickr user Antony Mayfield]

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  • I agree with your suggestions about what you need to do to speak like a Pro without slides, but you are setting up a lot of people for failure considering that most people are not professional speakers. Most presenters would benefit by having visuals to support her message.

    Your most important point is your last: “Practice. A lot.” That is the key to a good speaker with or without visuals. I’ll add to your list that if you are using PowerPoint, remember that creating good PPT visuals takes creativity and time. Don’t leave the slides to the night before.

    The use of visuals can save meeting time. For your next speech on time management, you should have a presentation design firm assist you in creating PPT slides. The expertly designed PowerPoint will communicate key points in half the time it would take you to make the same points without slides. You can then add “using effective PowerPoint slides to your next meeting to save time” as one of your important time saving tips.

  • Matthew Graybosch

    The best way to save meeting time is to not have meetings. As a developer with over a decade of experience, I have never attended a meeting that imparted information that could not be more efficiently transmitted by email.

  • Rongen Robles

    Slides are useful for graphical presentation, for picture to highlight a story/person/thing, and pointing out an info-graphic process or procedures. Other than those, speakers should not write the entire sentence or pharagraph to work as his background.

  • I fully agree. It's super important to practice what you are going to say. Stuttering along even on a beautiful presentation is just as bad as a bad presentation.

    Another thing I would add is consistency. Too often I see presentations where the slide layout looks different on every other slide. This makes it makes it harder for the audience to adjust follow along.

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