Chicken or egg? Both are wrong

I recently had the privilige of being interviewed by Jesse Spurr for his Injectable Orange podcast. One of topics we chatted about was the ‘ole standard of “why do we have text in presentations?” There is a degree of chicken and egg debate which adds to the difficulty of breaking away from this outmoded and ineffectual technique of presenting. It really doesn’t matter which side of the argument you approach this from- text on slides (and I mean more than about 3 words) is simply wrong.

The pro argument goes thus: “I need text because my boss/assessor/chief/senior says I need it.” The boss needs it for various reasons likely to include: that is the way it has always been and it will always be thus; it’s not scientific; I need something to read whilst you are talking; I want all the information up there in case you miss something out; you don’t have to read it all out but if all the informatiuon is up there others can see that we KNOW all that anyway; I can read faster than you can talk so give me something to do whilst you talk otherwise I’ll be bored.”

The con arguement counters: “I need text because I want it.” Your reasons are likely to include: it is my script; it allows people to read ahead or catch up; some people are visual/literal learners and they can read whilst I talk; I don’t know what else to put on the screen; it gives me confidence; even if I don’t use it as a script it gives me structure; if I forget to say something it is there for people to read; it is my handout.”

Text does not work and in fact makes your presentation worse. The science of psychology has shown over and over and over again that we cannot read and listen at the same time. Reading will dominate. The pro argument makes speaking superfluous, the con argument is simply an excuse for not being better. Sadly both are products of reception of many poor presentations. 

Of course the boss wants something to read! She has suffered years of terrible presentations and at least if she has something to read it won’t be quite so mind numbingly tedious. Not convinced? Watch the heads look up every time there is a new slide. Of course you want a script; you haven’t got a structure or a point to your presentation and consequently it is simply a huge list of facts, you haven’t practised (at all?!) so how would you ever get through without reading it? Neither of these is a good reason to have text on your presentation, they are just an excuse.

Why do I have such a strong opinion on the matter? This is the fundamental reason that presentations fail. Once you accept this, everything changes and anything is possible. Then you will start thinking about the purpose of your presentation, the needs of the audience, the value of what you have to say, the nature of your handout, how you can add to your talk by illustration, how you might engage with your audience and actually what they took away from the whole experience. It is not about why you need or don’t need text on your slides, it’s about a presentation.

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