I loved Laura Bergell’s response to the oh-so common request: “Great presentation! Can I have a copy of your slides?” Laura’s answer is: “My PowerPoint slides are my props. They’re not my presentation.”

I get asked for my slides every now and then. Usually the asker says they want to use them to persuade people in their company that there is a way of presenting that doesn’t require an endless stream of text. While it’s flattering to be asked, I usually gently deflect the request by sending the person to my blog and/or to my public presentations on SlideShare.

On one hand, I echo Laura’s sentiment – my presentations usually make no sense at all if you read them as a standalone – but there’s more to the question than that. Broadly speaking, I have noticed that I get asked for a copy of my slides by four types of people:

  • Competitors who are looking for free materials.
  • Potential clients who are looking for free advice.
  • Potential clients who want to evangelise in their company using the material.
  • Techies, who want to play with the toys and who want to see how we have built the presentation.

When any of those groups ask me for a copy of my slides, I usually have a slight pang of disappointment, as I have the feeling that the graphics and technology may have distracted the asker from whatever message I was propounding. *

The technology must never, never, distract from the message. Because the vast majority of PowerPoints are nothing more than an AutoCue for the presenter, if they are heeded at all, they distract by irritating the audience. That’s why a graphic-rich presentation still stands out a mile, even in supposedly enlightened 2009. But it’s also why you have to be so careful in building a presentation that consciously minimises the use of text. We’ve all seen presenters who are trying, but who don’t quite make it:

  • Distracting or pointless visuals.
  • Noticeable transitions or animations. [As a rule of thumb, if you ever find yourself wondering “How did s/he do that?” the animation is too obtrusive]

  • Lack of cohesion in the visuals – a hodge-podge of clipart, stock photos, stick figures and Google Image/Flickr grabs of varying resolutions.
  • Clashing colours.
  • Inappropriate fonts.

Interesting little clip from MSNBC on a fairly well-known presenter whose use of technology is becoming noticeable and sometimes distracting …

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On one hand, Mr Obama’s detractors are working very hard to place this he-can’t-speak-without-the-Prompter concept into the zeitgeist; presumably in an attempt to distract from the message he is propounding. It’s hard to view this as anything but sore-loser, mealy-mouthed talk, especially given that no modern President opens his mouth in front of any audience without prepared remarks sitting in front of him. I would also make the point that any senior executive is wasting time if they are learning off speaking points for minor events – and if The West Wing illustrated anything, it was that the President of the United States spends a whole lot of time speaking to hockey teams and primary school groups – all of which makes using the Prompter the sensible thing to do.

On the other hand, Mr Obama’s detractors have a point – not because he relies heavily on the Prompter, but because he doesn’t use it very well and, for his less-than-soaring rhetorical moments, that can distract from his message. I haven’t noticed him ‘blow it’ on the prompter during an important speech, but his ping-pong head movement does become noticeable when I see him doing minor stuff under the 24 hour glare of coverage.

He should slot a few hours into the schedule here and there, get a few straight-talking experts to instil improved skills in this area into him, and let’s start listening more closely to what the man has to say.

The technology must never distract from the message.

Related Posts:
Prepared remarks – Richard Nixon
Getting distracted by Phil Schiller

* Oh, and my other answer to people looking for my slides? “It’s a Keynote file. Do you use Keynote?” That eliminates more than 90% of requests straight off …