Throw Away Your Slides! (Maybe.)

Whenever I attend a webinar, I find myself getting frustrated with the format’s limitations, occasionally to the point where I complain about it in this blog. Someone, somewhere has probably put together the perfect webinar, but I haven’t seen it. Though the causes will vary from one webinar to another, whether it’s a lack of interactivity or the failure to show the speaker, there always seems to be one insurmountable problem: the slides.

Though you can look for help with your slides from sources like Guy Kawasaki’s “10/20/30 Rule of PowerPoint” or, more recently, Jesse Desjardins’ “You Suck at PowerPoint,”  most people don’t have the will, the time, or the artistic resources to make many improvements. Until yesterday, however, the most radically effective solution of all had never occurred to me: Don’t use slides at all.

Now before you conclude that I’ve lost my mind, let me share my experience with you. Yesterday I attended BtoB magazine’s Digital Edge virtual trade show, primarily to watch a leadoff keynote by Chris Brogan and a concluding one by Gary Vaynerchuk.

Brogan’s prerecorded presentation, on the “Rise of the Trust Agents,” was very good, of course. While he used slides, they were accompanied by video of Brogan giving his talk. I found, though, that the slides made me pay less attention to what he was saying. I tended to read ahead of or behind where he was, and to wonder whether he was skipping over some of his bullet points.

For him, too, I sensed, the slides were as much an impediment as a guide: he seemed to hesitate now and then, as though looking to see which slide he was on or whether it was time to advance to the next one. Though the distraction was subtle, it felt as though the slides were a wall between Brogan and his audience, preventing him from connecting as completely as he might have.

If I needed any reminder of how strong Brogan’s presentation was, distracting slides or not, a sampling of a few of the mid-day webinars provided it. Excellent content and presenters, to be sure, but they were sabotaged by disembodied voices, bullet-stuffed slides, and overly complex tables and charts.

Vaynerchuk’s end of the day talk, though, on “The Thank You Economy,” was in an entirely different, higher class. Like Brogan’s, his presentation was prerecorded, but he spoke without using slides or, apparently, any notes at all. Instead of being placed in the smaller presenter panel, his video appeared in the large panel where the slides usually are shown.

Without slides to distract me, I found that I focused more closely on what Vaynerchuk was actually saying.  It felt to me as though he was entirely focused on his audience throughout his talk, and that though he couldn’t actually see us, he was able to make a real connection. (It may have helped that he had a few people listening to him in the studio where his talk was recorded.)

The end result for me was that, although his content wasn’t necessarily more compelling than Brogan’s, I absorbed much more of it from him.

If you insist on being realistic, I’ll admit that Vaynerchuk is a special case. It probably helps that he’s spent the last four years or so doing daily video blogs, that he’s given many versions of this talk before, and that he’s a born talker who knows his subject cold. Few of us can ever hope to match his presentation skills.

But if your topic permits it, why not try going slideless? For most presenters slides are just an outline, a crutch to keep them on-topic. If it feels like tight-rope walking without a net, so much the better. Your audience will be riveted.

Even if we never feel ready to throw away our PowerPoints,  we can aspire to be less dependent on them. By using fewer slides with simpler content, we can spend more of our presentation time focusing on our listeners. In the end, if they just wanted the content, they could read your presentation by themselves. What they really want is to connect and interact with you. Throwing away your slides is one way to start that process.