Lesson from the Designers: Don’t Talk to Your Slides

Last week I attended a day-long conference at the Harvard architecture and design school, where I was speaking about how to pitch your project – your building, your design, your vision of a new landscape.  I was the last speaker of the day, so I had the fun of watching everyone else talk about the changing nature of design and how to sell it in the new world of complex teams and public input. 

But as the day progressed, I had to focus more and more on the spectacle of some very smart people failing to connect with the audience because of a very simple problem:  they talked to their slides. 

Now, these are polite people as well as smart ones, and there is no way that they would turn their backs on anyone while having a conversation with them one on one.  So why do they think it normal behavior to give the cold shoulder – or the even colder back – to a whole roomful of people? 

As designers, they were of course presenting a lot of slides, most of them beautiful.  Nothing wrong with that.  But so bewitching were all these slides, apparently, that the speakers couldn’t take their eyes off them.  And that’s where things started to go wrong. 

Put together a speaker with his back to the audience, a warm room, a long afternoon, and the roar of a projector, and you have a recipe for unconsciousness.  And that’s what happened.  By the time I was supposed to speak, the audience had lost most of its wits and all of its hope. 

More about how I woke them up in a later blog, but for now the takeaway is that you should never, ever turn your back on the audience to speak to your slides.  Know your slides.  If you have to look to see what the next one is, then do so, but don’t talk at that point.  Look first, then turn to the audience, then talk. 

The only motion that’s interesting to the audience is motion toward it (or away from it); take care of whatever business you have with your slides in the second or two between them.  Then turn to your audience and talk to them about whatever’s on that slide.  It’s disengaging, uninteresting, and rude to turn your back on the audience.  Never, ever talk to your slides. 

Comments

  1. says

    You have a good point, Nick – but I think there is a big difference between presenters talking to their slides, and interacting with them. I agree that presenters should never spend much time with their backs to the audience, but quick glances at the screen as the presenter gestures back can be really useful in helping the audience engage with the content.

  2. says

    Hi, Jessica –
    Thanks for your comment. And yes, quick glances at the slides are of course OK, but not talking to them with your back to the audience.

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