Weaning yourself off slide addiction

The Addiction
Slides. They are a corporate drug. Prescribed correctly and in small doses they can work miracles. Abused and, at best, they induce narcolepsy. They are also addictive (usually in the lethal PowerPoint form), and over-used by businesses, institutions and presenters across the world.

The Symptoms
Slide addiction has a number of easy-to-spot symptoms. The first is to respond to a request for a ‘presentation’ by instantly opening PowerPoint.

Addicts forget that slides are only a means to an end. They have been asked to ‘present’, not to reveal their PowerPoint prowess. In their desperation to accumulate slides, they forget that their audience is likely to remember almost nothing within them. They forget the power of brevity. Which leads to these secondary symptoms:

  • Pages of text summarising numerous points the speaker is making.
  • Illustrative graphs or tables sitting above five explanatory sentences. (In my view those sentences should be part of the speaker’s script, and the table used to illustrate his or her point).
  • Slides that are packed full of high-tech graphics and detailed information creating the impression of complexity and depth, but with no memorable message to pull them together.

The Cause
1. There’s no point bashing out bullet points and illustrations without a STRATEGY. And an effective presentation strategy requires two things:

Understanding that an audience CAN’T multi-task
Most of us are incapable of doing two things at once. When asked to listen to a speaker and simultaneously read words on a screen behind him or her, the default position is to read the slides as quickly as possible. We lose touch with the speaker, and once that link is broken, it is hard to repair. The damage can be done with as few as ten words on a single slide. More than that and you might as well email your ‘presentation’ through and await responses.

2. Asking one vital question: Why are you presenting in the first place?

As a general rule, you are probably aiming to do one of two things:

Present a MESSAGE: Deliver a core, high-level message that will be powerful and memorable (a new strategy, a sales pitch, a motivational piece etc)


Communicate DETAIL: Exchange large amounts of detail (training, educational programme, compliance updates etc)

Each requires a completely different approach.

The Best Approach

If you are presenting a MESSAGE:

To get the MESSAGE across, slides should only illustrate the points made in a speech. The script setting out the MESSAGE needs to stand alone, captivating the audience through spoken words. Slides can bring it to life through careful use of images, charts and video, but they should not summarise or repeat it. Ideally these slides should include NO WORDS AT ALL.

If you are communicating DETAIL:

To communicate the DETAIL, visual notes and information may be necessary. But the sad truth remains: the moment you have bullet points up on a slide, your audience will start reading and stop listening. And so TIMING becomes everything. You will still need to speak with impact, ensuring that your slideshow contains only images or blank slides while you do so. When you have made a point, or explained a detail, you can then click to reveal it. But you then need to stop speaking and let your audience read it for themselves. Once they have had time to do so, you should either ask if there are any questions before you move on, or simply click to a blank slide to re-focus their attention.

The Prescription
There are some fabulous uses of slides, and many of my clients have travelled the world armed with a simple, helpful and stimulating slide-show. Those presentations have all resulted directly from this strict prescription:

1. Start by deciding on your core message. Write it down.
2. Structure your argument in a way that ensures that message is its focal point.
3. Write your script before you create your slides. That way they will always illustrate your key points rather than repeat them.
4. Aim to have minimal words on the slide (a single image/graph or table is usually ample).
5. Remember that the typical member of your typical audience will only remember the high level subject matter of the presentation and ONE key message the morning after you have spoken. Therefore take every opportunity to keep it light and hone in on that message as regularly as possible.
6. If you have been asked to present or circulate your presentation in advance of the event, then I strongly recommend that you don’t re-present the written document at the event. Instead, summarise it briefly and impactfully, referring back to the longer version, and then open it up to a question and answer session on the details.
7. Don’t be afraid to involve your audience by opening the floor to questions where appropriate.
8. Never forget to be relevant. Irrelevance is a clear sign that you have a slide dependency (or that you have forgotten your audience entirely).

If communicating DETAIL, you need to:

1. Keep text-heavy slides visible ONLY when the presenter is not speaking
2. Use ‘break’ slides enabling the presenter to take control of the room
3. Include plenty of time for questions
4. Use exciting visuals. Even if they convey vital information, slides should still be interesting to look at.

And remember: If a DETAIL presentation has simply become a barrage of detailed, text heavy slides, then the presentation is no longer a presentation. It’s actually a written document on a wall and it should either be read in silence and followed by questions OR the presentation should be cancelled and the document circulated by email.

Health Warning
I hope this helps you on your way to a safe use of slides. But please speak to a professional for advice specific to your audience and objectives. If you are struggling, I’d love to help.