Why It’s OK To Read From Your Slides

father and son bodyboarding and waiting for a wave

Every day it seems I see an article or a blog stating that presenters should never read from their slides – and I simply don’t agree. ‘Gasp!’ I hear through the ether. But before I get into the whys and hows of this seemingly radical point of view, let’s look at the options presenters have to remind them what they need to say.

So, firstly there’s the script

A crafted set of words, meticulously selected to convey precisely what the speaker wants to say. Nice and easy from the presenter’s view point. But to the audience, someone that reads from a script usually sounds scripted(!), stiff, formal and unnatural. Sure, when every word matters, and there is no other visual support, a script might be necessity.

A good example of such a case was Jacob Zuma giving his acceptance speech earlier this month. But on the whole if you want to engage your audience and appear relaxed and confident, leave the script to Hollywood actors.

What about memorising the script?

Well unless you’re a trained actor (back to Hollywood again!) this is possibly your worst option. It’s incredibly unlikely that you’ll be able to remember 3 minutes of a script, let alone 30 minutes; and the stress of just thinking about all that stuff to remember is likely to send you into a tail spin before you’ve even got to the agenda.

My advice – rehearse and memorise your first 60-90 seconds, not word for word, just the key points, then acknowledge you’re human and that you’re going to need more than your memory to get you through the gig.

Which leads us to notes

Notes aren’t bad but they have 3 distinct drawbacks.

Firstly you need to remember where you are within your notes, at any given time, if they’re going to be of any use. It’s no good rattling through the first 9 slides notes-free and then realising you need their help on slide 10. Unless you can go directly to that spot in your notes, you’ll be stuffed. So let’s assume you use your notes all the way through.

Well, the second problem occurs if you happen to be someone that gestures a lot and is pretty animated as a presenter. In this case your notes, waving all over the place, can be a serious distraction to the audience.

And finally, every time you read from your notes, you’re cutting eye contact, and therefore engagement with the audience.
So notes too can be a serious hinderance to successful presenting.

Having said that, if properly prepared (large, easy to read, bullet points only) notes can be vital when you are presenting with minimalist slides a la Garr Reynolds, so I won’t be completely black and white about their use.

Using computer or laptop notes

A close relative to hand-held notes are the computer/laptop notes function that comes with packages like Microsoft PowerPoint®. I personally never recommend people use this option as to be honest I think it’s pretty rude, especially during a business presentation (vs a conference presentation). That’s because every time you look down at your computer notes you draw the curtains shut between you and your audience, which completely disengages them.

In fact the disengagement is so strong that you almost have to re-engage them from scratch again when you look back up. I’m afraid using the notes function is a big pet hate of mine.

Looking at your slides

So that leaves us with looking at our slides. Now I need to stress that I am talking about business presentations – millions of which are probably taking place in meeting and board rooms around the planet as I write this. So, let’s be clear, I am NOT talking about large scale conferences and the like.

What I want to advocate is that your slides should be there to support you, as well as to add clarity and interest to your content. So your slides should act as your guide. But to use them effectively, I encourage people to ‘slide surf’.

The Slide Surf

For those of you not familiar with surfing – a quick intro. Once surfers are past the breakers, in the ‘take-off zone’ as they call it, they glance every now and again behind them to see what waves are coming. Once they see the wave they want to catch, they face forward and focus on catching and riding that wave.

This is what I recommend as a presenter. Every now and again, to remind yourself of the point you need to deliver, glance at your slide. Now of course I’m not suggesting that you stand with your back to the audience and read continuously from your slides. That would clearly be ridiculous.

What I recommend is a look that only needs a second. If you are using bullet points (and I’m not saying I’m a bullet point fan – in fact the opposite is true, but I acknowledge they are a major factor in business presentations today) and follow the 5×5 rule (No more than about 5 bullet points on a slide. No more than about 5 words per bullet point) a second is all you need.

There are 3 distinct advantages to ‘slide surfing’:

1. You don’t need to hold any notes, leaving your hands free to add animation, dimension, energy, passion etc to your delivery which keeps the audience involved and interested.

2. Glancing quickly at your slide actually adds to audience engagement because looking at your slide acts as a non-verbal signpost; indicating where you are and the direction you are going, which in turn adds clarity and comprehension.

3. For the second that you glance at your slide, you become briefly one of them – a member of the audience, all looking at the slide together. This is a great technique for creating synergy between you, your slides and your audience and therefore for building rapport

And the downside – well I seriously can’t think of any.

So, leave scripts and memorising scripts to Hollywood actors. Only use notes if your slides are minimalist. And never use the computer/laptop notes function unless you want to shut the curtains on your audience. Instead, slide surf! Work with your slides to keep your audiences involved, to signpost the journey, and to create synergy.

One final thing. Don’t forget that YOU are the presentation and YOU are the deliverer of your information.

Above all, remember it’s your personality that powers your presentation performance.

Be the presenter you want to be.

Now that you don’t feel bad about using slides for your next meeting, why not discover what other tips you can learn through our coaching sessions, and workshops.

Get in touch with us.

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