By Chew

Here’s a reality check:

  1. How many presentations can you remember from the last three years? [1]
  2. Of those that you remember, how much of the content do you remember?
  3. Is it true that most presentations involved the use of slides?

Slides are evil. If life is short and time is the most precious commodity, slides are responsible for the greatest loss of life.

As a victim, I have sat through countless slide presentations where no amount of thigh or cheek pinching could keep me awake.

I’m an offender too. Some years ago I was invited to present to a class at a local polytechnic. In a lecture hall that seated over a hundred, only a handful was listening to me. Nearly everyone was on their mobile devices. No one would remember that presentation except me.

I’m thankful for all the presentations that had gone wrong. They power the sharing of this article.

In my journey, I have had an excellent mentor: Nathaniel Forbes. He cautioned me recently and stated in no uncertain terms that it is the speaker’s responsibility for engaging the audience. It was a wake-up call. For some time before, I’d actually accepted the state and fate of a disengaged audience from time to time.

Unplugging PowerPoint (and Keynote) provided me an opportunity to re-think what really matters in a presentation.

Being Relevant. This means having empathy for my audience. Who is in my audience? Why are they here? What do they want from me? Content isn’t king; the audience is. It’s my job to understand their needs and their point of view. It’s a take-away situation and I need to take their order. Clarity is the order of the day.

Content isn’t king; the audience is.

Many presentations force feed too much information that lacks relevance to audience. One peculiar reason why this often happens is because information isn’t packaged for the audience.

  • To get the audience thinking about their roles at a pre-event brief I had a member of the audience simulate the time, place and role that was expected of him. Then I had a presentation team member faint right there and then. It became clear that knowing the plan isn’t the same as knowing exactly what to do when a guest collapses at the event.

It won’t have been so long ago when we sat through a deck of 120 slides. Always ask what is the purpose of every piece of information? What difference does it make to the audience? What if a certain part is excluded? Being relevant is also about being realistic. Just how much can the audience take away?

  • Content is often overwhelming like a tsunami. Bank on context instead. If safety is the topic, consider safety mindset to provide the scaffolding for specific safety aspects. The same mindset provides the framework for taking in specifics in future and may provide guidance when a novel situation arises.
  • If my audience can recall one thing, it’s not bad. It means there was a central or important idea that was understood and remembered.

Being Connected. I’ve got to some how get into the head of the audience. It takes some practice and experience to read the audience, to know if they are following. Moving the heart is harder. I tend to share personal stories to move the audience but not everyone is prepared to disarm and go with this approach. The surrogate approach is to borrow stories to move the heart. That works too.

It’s a two-way street: an active audience encourages me to work with them. Here are some possibilities to get their hands busy:

  • Poll the audience. Crowd-source for an answer or a set of answers — that may well form the content intended for the audience.
  • Task. Assign individual or group activities to keep audience awake and engaged.
  • Technology. Hijack the hijacker, e.g. use the very technology that is distracting the audience: mobile phones in the audience to get feedback.

Hands are also symbolic of audience action after the presentation. Beginning with an end in mind, we need to map the journey of our message beyond the presentation. What do we want to achieve with the audience? Knowledge retention and application or answering a call to action.

Being Different. It’s hard to fight with mobile phones in the hands of my audience. YouTube videos and games are far more entertaining than I am. But I’m not giving up without a fight:

  • Create the drama. To communicate the mindset of expecting the unexpected, I had some participants seated in a make-believe van made up of chairs (see this article’s main visual). Scenario: it’s 03:32, we are travelling in a remote area on a dark and stormy night when suddenly… BANG!! WE’VE HIT SOMETHING [2]!
  • Upstage the stage. Magicians and talk show hosts invite guests on stage. My guests on stage help bridge between the audience and me. Yet another possibility is to treat the entire presentation space as one. Invade the audience’s space from time to time.

For many, slides provide the reference for content and sequence of delivery. Without slides, I refer to notes and a checklist [3] of content to deliver on. The fear of not being able to rely on slides can be freed by having an open mind. Every presentation is an opportunity to re-examine the content and to experiment. It is neither a “Yes” or “No” to slides. Perhaps moderation works for some, where more time can be spent on appreciating the content and shaping the message, and less time on fancy effects in slides. Philips in its drive for simplicity, limits PowerPoint presentation to ten slides [4]. Sounds like a TED or TEDx presentation?

There are two situations that may require us to work with the dark side. First, your audience may insist on slides. Second, certain types of visuals or information (especially those best presented with infographic) may require slides. When these situations happen, remember moderation. Minimise the number of slides and draw attention to you the messenger, not the slides.

Once you’ve decided to turn on the lights, you’ve taken the first step to assuming greater responsibility for a certain time, space and outcome. May you have fun experimenting with your delivery. And may your audience remember your message and you instead of hitting high scores on Minecraft or Pokémon GO.

Have a great week ahead!


The views expressed in this article are mine and do not reflect the views of the Singapore Red Cross Society.

[1] I have attended many life support training in the last twenty years. Every one of them involved slides, except for one particular session by Raymund Loh. That session was a fire starter for me.

[2] The training session is part of the Singapore Red Cross Overseas Disaster Deployment Training. My other mentor Tang Chun Tuck refers to the episode as experiential learning.

[3] There are many options. It’s Google Keep for me and Evernote for some others.

[4] Burgers, W. (2008) Marketing Revealed: Challenging the Myths, Palgrave Macmillan: p120.

This article was first published on LinkedIn.

Photo credits: Tang Chun Tuck

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