How do I integrate slides in my speeches? — Frequent Questions

Q; How do I integrate slides in my speeches?
A: Do you really have to? Really?

I have nothing against slides—if they add value to a speech. But most speakers ask for slides because:

  1. everyone else uses them
  2. they need a reminder of what they’re talking about
  3. they want to believe it’s a TED Talk
  4. holding the clicky thing gives them something to do with their hands.

Look, none of these are capital offenses. But they’re not particularly good reasons, either.

Because everyone else uses them?

But the majority of “everyone else” uses them badly. Still, if you’ve sat through dozens of presentations with eye-chart slides, you think that’s the way to give a professional presentation.

You load up each slide with as much information as it can handle. If your audience can read the tiny type at all, they’ll have taken in the information in a minute flat. But they have to sit there listening to you read it to them for the next five or 10.

Is this a good use of anyone’s time? Will they be a) grateful for the information? Or just b) grateful that you’ve stopped talking?

How have you felt sitting through one of those presentations? So why would you inflict it on anyone else?

Integrate slides to add value to the presentation

There’s only one reason to use slides—and if you pay close attention to the mainstage TED Talks, you’ll see that’s how they use slides: to add value to what you’re saying.

If you’re talking about rocket science, you don’t need a picture of a rocket ship: everyone in your audience could pick a rocket ship out of a lineup. Showing them a photograph of one only diverts their attention away from you. And in my book, that’s the biggest mistake a speaker can make.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Chris Anderson, the Head of TED, from his book TED Talks: the Official TED guide to public speaking:

“…the first question to ask yourself is whether you need [slides]. It’s a striking fact that at least a third of TED’s most viewed talks make no use of slides whatsoever.”

One-third—sling that fact at the next person who tells you you need to use slides “because TED.”

Also, Anderson says if your presentation is well-written, you don’t need gimmicks. Okay, he didn’t exactly say that. He said:

“…if the core of your talk is intensely personal, or if you have other devices for livening up your talk—like humor or vivid stories—then you may do better to forget the visuals and just focus on speaking personally to the audience.”

I added the emphasis there. Of course.

But if you still feel you need visual aids, integrate slides into your presentation. Or as Anderson says:

“there needs to be a compelling fit between what you tell and what you show.”

and

“…limit each slide to a single core idea.”

integrate slides
Webinars need slides. But see how I feed the audience the info one idea at a time?

The bottom line:

“When you think about it, it’s fairly simple. The main purpose of visuals can’t be communicate words; your mouth is perfectly good at doing that. It’s to share things your mouth can’t do so well: photographs, video, animations, key data.”

Integrate slides into your script

Today’s question came from one of my readers on LinkedIn. All the poor man wanted to know, I think, was how to integrate slides into the text he gives his client.

That’s easy:

[SLIDE 2]

insert fascinating text here

[SLIDE 3]

more fascinating stuff here

But really, try as hard as you can to convince your speaker to go without slides. And if you can’t, read Nancy Duarte’s great book Slide-ology to learn how to do it right.


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Ssssh! Don’t tell! — the right way to convey a story

Sometimes I think instead of storytelling, maybe we should talk about storyshowing. “Tell” just sends the wrong message. It’s one-sided. I tell the story; you listen. Where’s the fun in that?

storyShowing is a much more participatory activity. I give you a narrative; you instinctively fit yourself into it, taking the pieces and manipulating them in your mind until you’ve created your own story from them. Once you’ve done that, the story is in your brain, ready to be used and repurposed as needed. And pretty much nothing is going to dislodge it. Stories stick, as the Heath Brothers demonstrate in their book Made to Stick.

And what if I tell you only part of the story? That makes it even stickier, as your brain scrambles to fill the gaps.

Showing activates a whole different sequence than telling. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to an actual neuroscientist. And think about this the next time you’re tempted to tell instead of show: Telling gives you one shot at giving the information to your audience. But showing—storyshowing—elicits a chain reaction in your listeners’ brains—and in their listeners’ as well.

It’s quite a responsibility. But I think you’re up for it.

Great way to express gratitude—a pro tip for speakers

one way to express gratitudeIf I’ve given my regular readers the impression that I hate “thank yous,” I apologize. I love it when speakers express gratitude—just not at the beginning of a speech.

You never want to give your audience an excuse not to listen to you. And what says “I’m not talking to you right now” better than taking three minutes to lavish thanks on 0.01% of the people present. That’s why I tell my clients—and my writing students—to integrate their thank yous into the body of a speech. Find a way that they can add value to what you’re saying.

Here’s how I used the technique at the Smith College Women’s Leadership Conference last month.

Step 1—the set-up

I talked about how and why speakers shouldn’t open with a list of thank yous.

“When you get called on in a meeting, do you stand up and say, ‘I’d like to thank John for calling on me. And Josh for getting the bagels. And, Margie—great PowerPoint!’ Of course you don’t; you’d be laughed out of the room. People in a meeting want to hear your ideas. Your audience at a speech does too.”

Still, it’s appropriate to thank your hosts. And I said I would—when it would add value to my presentation.

Step 2—the recall

Maybe 10 minutes later, I reminded the audience that I promised to thank the college. After a beat, I said:

“No, I’m not going to do that yet. But you’re all waiting for it, right? That’s because I’ve created Mystery.”

And I discussed the importance of creating a sense of mystery when you tell a story. Chris Anderson, in his book TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, talks about the power of framing your speech like a “detective story.”

Step 3—the surprise

Toward the end of my speech, I told a story about a meaningful experience I’d had at Smith, something profound I learned that’s served me well throughout my career. I showed a photo of the professor who taught me the lesson. He’s still teaching, all these years later, and his students and former students let out a small cheer.

“…And I would like to thank Smith for bringing me back here today so I could share this story with you.”

And the audience broke out into laughter and spontaneous applause.

As one woman told me the next day,

“We knew you were going to do it. You told us to expect it. But we never saw it coming.”

Express gratitude memorably

How did I get there?

Well, you can pretty much never go wrong when you use the Rule of Three: aim for a laugh on the third repetition of something. Could I have thanked Smith when I discussed thank yous the first time? Probably. I could definitely have done it the second time—but I enjoyed faking out the audience. I worried that by the third time the “thank you” would be as obvious as an 18-wheeler barreling down the highway. But apparently not.

Why not? How was I able to sneak the final set-up for my thank you into the speech? Because I embedded it in a story. And that story fit seamlessly into the body of my speech.

That’s what I mean by adding value with every element of your speech. By the time I got around to the obligatory thank you, it served three purposes:

  1. Express gratitude
  2. Highlight an important aspect of my Smith experience
  3. Demonstrate a speech technique

Your “thank you” might not accomplish all three of these things—I was fortunate to be speaking about how to give a great speech—but it can definitely do more than just express gratitude to specific people.

How can you use your gratitude to enhance your audience’s experience or their understanding of your material? It takes more thought up front, but your audience will remember—and appreciate—you for it.


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The 10 Writing Commandments of Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard, writer
Elmore Leonard – Flickr, Creative Commons license

Writing about editing the other day, I was fishing around for that great Elmore Leonard quote—you know:

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

And I discovered it’s part of an entire article he wrote about writing in The New York Times. It’s his 10 Commandments of writing, and—spoiler alert—he calls this the “most important rule.” And so it is.

But many of the others are well worth your attention—even if you don’t write highly stylized mystery novels.

“1. Never open a book with weather.”

Now, most of my people don’t write books. But this rule works as well for speakers and writers of nonfiction as it does for novelists.

“If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.”

Yes, even in a business context “the reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for”—if not people, then at least story. Some human connection. Give it to them as quickly as possible. In fact, start with it, weather be damned.

“2. Avoid prologues.”

Leonard warns against prologues because:

“They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword.”

Many speeches contain prologues—the endless lists of people to thank, throat-clearing about insignificant stuff: “Thanks for coming out in this rain, folks.” (See rule #1.) Get to the point.

Watch yourself some TED Talks. No prologue there. The speaker dives right into the story, and you’re riveted. Don’t you want your audience to be riveted too? Do that: dive in.

“5. Keep your exclamation points under control.”

“You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.”

Especially in business writing, there’s really no place for that level of excitement.

But my favorite piece of advice—seriously, I love this so much I may have to embroider it on a pillow:

“10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

Right? But how do you know what part that is?

Well, what parts do you skip? For me, it’s lists. Sometimes writers try to disguise a list as a paragraph. Lazy, lazy writing. If it’s so important for me to know about each of these things, then tell me why. Don’t just list a bunch of brands, for instance, and expect me to be impressed. What did you do for each of those brands? How did you leave their companies different than you found them?

Of course, Leonard is thinking about fiction:

“Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.”

“I’ll bet you don’t skip the dialogue.”

Business writers don’t often deal with dialogue. But we do tell stories. Or we should. You don’t skip the stories. You pay attention—always—when there’s an emotional connection between you and the material. So do that. Always.

And if it sounds like writing, rewrite.


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Mangled translation – one of my pet peeves

When words threaten to lose their meaning, those of us who care about such things have to be scrupulous about our use of language. Mangled translation has always been one of my pet peeves.

So when I got an email from the smart folks at TED Talks with this in it, I socked it into my idea file for a future blog posts. The future has arrived.

mangled translation leaves people with the wrong idea about Descartes' most famous saying

There’s a reason cogito, ergo sum is “routinely translated as ‘I think, therefore I am.'” It’s because that’s what René Descartes meant when he wrote those words.

Funny how that works.

Go back to the source and you’ll find Descartes actually wrote, Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum. I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.

Geary’s mangled translation relies on an alternative meaning of agitare—one that makes absolutely no sense if you return to the source.

But let’s go back to the original original source—because Descartes wrote and published his Le Discours de la Méthode in French before he translated it into Latin; he wanted his work to reach the widest audience possible, and no one much spoke Latin outside of academia or the church. The French is not as compact, not as bumper sticker-ready as the Latin. But bumper stickers were not in wide use in 1637:

…si je doute, je pense, et si je pense, je suis.”

If I doubt, I think, and if I think, I am.

Shake things up with mangled translation

James Geary may be peddling mangled translation but I like the point he’s trying to make. Why were we put on this earth if not to shake things up? Here’s how I would rewrite to preserve both Descartes’ intent and Geary’s point:

The three most famous words in all of Western philosophy—Cogito, ergo sum—are routinely translated as “I think, therefore I am.” But it’s possible to read that another way, too. Because the root of the Latin word cogito is the verb agitare—which does indeed mean “to put something in motion” or even to shake. So you might think of cogito, ergo sum as meaning, “I shake things up, therefore I am.” In fact, that’s the meaning I’m going to adopt today. I don’t expect much pushback from Descartes about this; he’s been dead for 367 years.

You get to the same point. But you bring truth along with you. And especially these days, truth should travel with us wherever we go.


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Mr. Rogers doesn’t live here anymore: storytelling & civil society

“There isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” — Mr. Rogers

Filmmaker Andrew Stanton mentioned that quotation in the TED Talk on storytelling that I wrote about yesterday. He said Fred Rogers, the iconic friendly guy in a cardigan, always carried with him a piece of paper with those words written on it.

Mr. Rogers shows viewers around the neighborhood
Publicity photo: Mr. Rogers & his neighborhood
Even as a kid, I found Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood a little too saccharine for my taste. But I do agree with Mr. Rogers’ saying. Or I used to.

Stories seem a remarkably tame weapon against the hatred being stoked by President Bannon the elected and un-elected officials currently running our government. The idea of swapping stories with these people is as ludicrous as sending Fred Rogers out into a firefight wearing his trademark sweater instead of a flak jacket.

Kindness only goes so far.

Storytelling remains the best way to connect with people. But only if those people are willing to hear. And…

Mr. Rogers gave me writer’s block

[one day later]

No, I don’t believe in writer’s block. And I don’t have writer’s block. But I’m having trouble making words come out of my fingers.

I guess you could say I have “writer’s hopelessness.”

I have been telling stories for as long as I can remember. Decades before I started doing it professionally.

I know stories have power. But…

[two days later]

Stories propelled the LGBT rights movement forward, as non-LGBT people learned we aren’t some strange breed from a glitter-filled planet. We’re their neighbors, friends, family. The person praying next to you in church. The teacher, the rabbi—and, yes, sometimes your hairdresser too.

In the 1960s, stories—aided by video and brave television correspondents—stoked the opposition to the Vietnam War. Stories and film of water cannons unleashed on defenseless schoolchildren ratcheted up support for civil rights.

Stories told by primly corseted middle-class women in 1800s America helped stoke the fires of Abolitionism. And stories told by enslaved people who’d escaped to freedom brought slavery’s evils into sharp focus in the parlors and assembly halls of the north.

Story-telling has a long history of helping “them” to understand “us”—whoever the oppressed us du jour may be. I know this.

Mr. Rogers, I surely want “them” to love me, us. But I am not at all sure I want to love them back.

I want to understand why they hate me—and hate so many others, even more marginalized than I am. But I am nowhere near ready to love them. Or even to “learn to love” them.

And that’s a terrible place to find myself in, both as a story-teller and as a Christian.

Enter Absurdity

I was about to type the cliché “The only way out is through.” But I decided to source it, so I turned to Sir Google and found it appears in contexts as diverse as Robert Frost, religious writing, Psychology Today, and—of course—the World of Warcraft video game. It seems to be the title of an episode, if that’s the right terminology: “Quest: The Only Way Out is Through.”

Wowpedia tells us that the rebel leader Thalyssra—who’s in serious need of an eyebrow wax

“…is caught up in a deadly race to save her people from their grievous error before she succumbs completely to the mindless state of a withered.”

Grievous error, mindless people: that sounds like the right analogy for us, doesn’t it?

So we don’t have a choice, do we?

Tell stories, listen to stories—as Mr. Rogers commands us. They’re our magic swords, or pointy eyebrows, or whatever weapons Thalyssra uses. Stories can bind us together in solidarity. They can move us to action. They may—and I do hope Mr. Rogers is right about this—even be able to help us understand each other. Let just hope they can work their magic before we succumb completely to the mindless state of a withered.


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Talking blue (and red) – practical advice in Robb Willer’s TED Talk

“Blue language” usually means swearing. Why? Not even Slate knows, though this article “Sacré bleu! Why is blue the most profane color?” offers some historical tidbits. But these days “talking blue” might describe a liberal’s inability to communicate with a conservative. You can articulate the liberal worldview until you’re blue in the face, but if the person on the other side of the conversation holds a conservative worldview, you will never understand each other.

Talking blue to your mirror

Or as social psychologist Robb Willer says,

“…when we go to persuade somebody on a political issue, we talk like we’re speaking into a mirror. We don’t persuade so much as we rehearse our own reasons for why we believe some sort of political position.”

That’s from his TED Talk “How to have better political conversations.” Have a listen and learn how to use “moral reframing” to step away from the mirror and begin the process of connecting with people more challenging than your reflection.

Like George Lakoff, Willer sees partisan messaging as rooted in different core values:

“…liberals tend to endorse values like equality and fairness and care and protection from harm more than conservatives do. And conservatives tend to endorse values like loyalty, patriotism, respect for authority and moral purity more than liberals do.”

You may recall the line in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life that every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings. Well, every time we frame an issue in terms of “fairness and equality”—talking blue—a liberal angel loses its wings.

If we want to reach conservatives, we have to stop talking blue
A screenshot from Robb Willer’s TED Talk

I get it: To me issues like LGBT rights are unquestionably about fairness and equality. And I don’t have to abandon that belief—but if I want a Conservative to hear me, I’d do better to talk about how it’s also an issue of patriotism. “We don’t treat people differently in this country; we don’t interfere in people’s bedrooms; that’s not what Americans do.”

I don’t know. I haven’t got all the answers. But Willer’s argument made me shout “D’oh!” and hit my forehead. We need to replace shouts with conversations; we need to replace contempt with empathy; we need to replace disdain with respect. And yes, both sides need to do this. But the more we embrace empathy and respect, the more the other side will as well.

So how do you do that?

Notice the way Willer combines liberal and conservative language at the end of his TED Talk:

“So this is my call to you: let’s put this country back together. Let’s do it despite the politicians and the media and Facebook and Twitter and Congressional redistricting and all of it, all the things that divide us. Let’s do it because it’s right. And let’s do it because this hate and contempt that flows through all of us every day makes us ugly and it corrupts us, and it threatens the very fabric of our society. We owe it to one another and our country to reach out and try to connect. We can’t afford to hate them any longer, and we can’t afford to let them hate us either. Empathy and respect. Empathy and respect. If you think about it, it’s the very least that we owe our fellow citizens.”


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“Will you choose to matter?”—the most important question

“Will you choose to matter?”

I’ve given a lot of thought to this last blog of the year. Would I summarize lessons learned? Or maybe offer a list of the best books I’ve read, best speeches I’ve heard. Whether you’re dating or writing, the end of the year always carries unwarranted expectations.

And then Seth Godin sent out this link to a TED Talk he gave a couple of years ago. In just about three and a half minutes, he delivers a fascinating story, hooks us in, and delivers one of the most powerful calls to action I’ve heard.

It’s the best gift I can give you as we end the journey of 2016 and arrive unsteadily on the shores of 2017.

I wish us all a peaceful and productive year ahead. But whatever happens, let’s resolve to matter.

Empathy is the new black: From my in-box

One of my readers, Evon, wrote me a few days ago to stress the importance of empathy in these difficult times. Indeed.

During our interminable presidential election we’ve had enough screaming at each other to last a lifetime. And the post-election period is no better, as the basest instincts of some people have come to the fore while others are justifiably scared. And still others absolutely bewildered by all of it.

Evon suggested this TED Talk, Chris Anderson’s interview with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

The thing he said that pulled me up short was:

“Each moral community is a matrix of consensual hallucination.”

He says each side sees a different set of threats looming for the country. And both sides are right. In fact,

“There are a lot of threats to the country and each side is constitutionally incapable of seeing them all.”

Let’s make empathy chic

We’re not going to change people’s minds. But we can try to empathize with them. And give them an opportunity to empathize with us.

Now, I’m not advocating a mass sing-in of Kumbaya. You can’t empathize with someone when they have their foot on your neck. And it’s an objective fact that the president-elect has appointed some hard-line dudes (so far, just dudes) to work with and advise him. And those dudes have ideologies I find personally scary.

So I doubt I’m going to develop empathy with newly appointed Chief White House Strategist Steve Bannon. But I had a productive conversation with my cousin yesterday. She actually heard me, which was a start.

Anyway, listen to the interview and form your own opinions. Comment if you like. With empathy, please.

Holding your audience — how to keep ’em listening

I found an article full of great advice on holding your audience. The headline grabbed my attention immediately, but then—irony of ironies—the copy lost it immediately.

Before I got to the advice the headline promised, I had to wade through nearly 200 words of nonsense, mostly irrelevant data points. Some mentioned twice! I’m going to blame the editor here, for trying to put a fancy hat on an otherwise perfectly serviceable listicle.

It’s a sad, sad thing when Good Writing Goes Bad. So let’s see if I can salvage the meat of the article for you (paraphrasing heavily).

The do’s and don’ts of holding your audience

Don’t use jargon. I beat this drum often, so couldn’t agree more.

Do be authentic. Again, an essential point.

Don’t, um, say “um” or other filler words. Er…enough said.

And she adds some things I haven’t thought about, but which make sense:

Don’t speak in a monotone. Chris Anderson devotes an entire section of his fine book TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking to “Voice and Presence.” If you need help to speak naturally, that’s a great place to start.

Don’t be dismissive of other people or their ideas. Excellent advice for everyone, not just speakers. While it may work in some settings (see: Trump, Donald J.—Primaries), it can backfire badly in others (see: Trump, Donald J.—First Presidential Debate). Unless 100% of your listeners share 100% of your views—and how could you possibly know that?—going negative puts people into a defensive frame of mind. If you want folks to be open to your ideas, you need to find commonalities with them. Don’t put them on the defensive.

Do pay attention to physical and social cues. Make eye contact with your listeners. Offer them opportunities to interact with you—whether you take questions during the presentation or in a Q&A afterward. And if you’re on a panel or even just in a one-on-one conversation, respect other people’s personal space.

I’ll add one Don’t that didn’t make it into the article:

Don’t try to buy credibility by throwing in unnecessary data. Not everything needs a statistic. That’s the biggest key to holding your audience: Get to the point and stay there.