Forget the Deck

Yes! It’s presentation week at the Generative Communication newsletter. And no, you won’t see even a single slide here. Well, maybe one slide on Friday. The reason is not that I don’t like presentations. Actually, I’ve just finished working on one. But as you might expect, I have plenty to say about this infamous medium. 

It is probably best to start at the beginning, and the beginning does not involve a slide deck. In fact, to the extent you will even need a slide deck, that’s the last thing you should think of. Here’s why. 

I don’t like it when people look down at presentations. I really don’t like the “No Presentation” cult. In hundreds of meetings, talks, and workshops I’ve led in my career, I’ve used plenty of presentations. Some of them were bad, but others were super effective. There are many reasons for that, but there are two primary ones. The first is that a presentation is not always required. We’ll get back to this point soon. 

The second reason many presentations fail is that there is no way to create a good, effective, and engaging slide deck without knowing first what you wish to say. 

An effective presentation is a visual aid, just like a stage design is in a play. I’ve been to plays where the stage design was impressive but failed to work. In other plays, the stage design was minimalistic, but everything about it was thought-out: it was designed to serve and intensify what happened on stage. Now, I’m not a stage designer, but I’m willing to bet no play in the world starts with sketching a stage design. The play script comes first. 100% of the time. 

Likewise, a presentation is not designed to capture the content of your talk, nor should it aim to be used as notes. The slide deck should help you deliver your content more effectively when needed. If you don’t design your content first, there is no way the presentation is effective. 

So, how do you approach the design of a slide deck? First, you put it on hold. Then, you assume there is no presentation at all. And then, you start to work on your content: researching, compiling material, forming your thesis, finding examples, and organizing your ideas in a way that makes it coherent and accessible. At this point, you should be able to deliver your talk just like that, without any visual aid. 

Now is the perfect time to start thinking about the stage design (or, in our case, the slide deck). The rule is simple: add a slide only when it adds value. 

Here’s a list of slides that could make a difference in the experience of your audience: 

  • A visual representation of a key idea
  • Handpicked visualized data
  • An example you refer to and should be visible as you talk
  • A milestone that helps the audience understand where we are in the journey 

And here are some examples of slides that do not add value: 

  • A slide that repeats what you say
  • A slide with a generic image for decoration
  • A slide with raw data
  • A slide with too many details to read 
  • A slide you are not talking about at all 
  • A slide designed to help you remember your key points 
  • A slide designed for the audience to follow your key points 

These lists are obviously incomplete. The point is that each of your slides should add value (not repeat the value you deliver as you speak). The only way to design the presentation so it adds value is to do so after you already know exactly what you are about to say. 

Does that mean my presentations are always slim and minimalistic? Absolutely not. I delivered some talks with no slide deck, but I delivered plenty of talks with dozens of slides. The number of slides does not define the quality of the talk or the effectiveness of the presentation. The only thing I care about is that whatever grabs my audience’s attention has value. 

When a new slide is shown on screen, my audience stops looking at me. Instead, they focus on whatever is presented behind me. When this happens, I make sure that, like a perfect stage design, it will grab my audience’s attention for a good reason that fits perfectly with the experience I am trying to create.

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