To Give a Better Presentation, Don’t Read from Your Slides
Have you ever had the exasperating experience of hearing presenters read their slides syllable by syllable, word by word? I certainly have. One time a keynote speaker turned to the screen and read an entire paragraph. The next couple of slides, same thing. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one tempted to sneak out. I’ve heard other presenters read their slides as if it were story time for three-year-olds. How insulting!
If you give presentations, whether to team members, customers, or a conference audience, make no mistake: Reading the slides makes you look unprepared, inconsiderate, and unprofessional. And it’s the fastest way to get your audience to stop listening to you.
In fact, according to several audience polls and business surveys, being read to is the number one presentation complaint, and I’ve found the same in my own polls. Still, despite the fact that it’s a major complaint—and that even the people who read slides to their own audiences don’t like being read to when they’re in the audience—too many presenters continue to read their slides.
Here’s the thing: When you display a slide filled with text, it’s natural for the audience to try to read it. But there’s something called cognitive load theory, which says (among other things) that we have difficulty processing information that’s coming at us in written and spoken form simultaneously, especially when the two don’t match. Basically, there’s only so much new information the brain can process at one time. So listeners can read the slides or listen to you, but they can’t successfully do both.
In fact, people learn more effectively when slides are stripped of extraneous words, graphics, animation, sounds, fancy transitions, and things flying across the screen. Instead of assisting learning, all these extras actually diminish learning because they’re distracting. They strain the audience’s cognitive resources.
Therefore, replace any lengthy text you might be tempted to use with a few keywords and use those words as prompts for the points you’re making. Or if you have several bullet points, split them into multiple slides so that each slide has just a few words—and make sure each bullet point is no more than a few words. No sentences. No paragraphs. If detailed information is essential, provide it in a handout. In other words, have the slides support your presentation—not be the presentation.
As a longtime professional speaker, I’ve found that it's best to weed out the wordiness. Yes, it means you have to practice and then practice some more so that you know your material. But you won’t be tempted to insult your audience by reading to them.