Murder your slide decks: best practices for giving your best speech.

Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash

Q: What’s the difference between a speech and a presentation?

A: Everything.

I probably shouldn’t have set that up to look like a joke, because it’s supremely unfunny, but it’s also shockingly true: speeches and presentations are not the same thing at all. A speech is an opportunity to connect with a group, to deliver a powerful message and often to inspire or rally an audience. A presentation is a simple vehicle to deliver information. Both can overlap, somewhat, but they’re totally different beasts for the most part. I was recently helping a client with a speech that he was going to deliver at a big technology conference. At the outset of us working together, he said something which gave me pause: “Yep, we’re working on the slides and so we’ll have something to build out the speech, soon”.

Record scratch. Freeze frame. I would have never dreamed I’d be on a one-woman mission to stop people making long slide decks, but here I am.

Today, there’s an overwhelming corporate tendency to think that a deck of slides equals a speech. In fact, it’s really rare to see anyone present anything without slides illuminated behind them. And don’t get me wrong. I think there’s definitely a time and a place for slides — in fact, I use them a lot in my practice. But slides are for presentations, not speeches. Slides are for when you want to codify something visually and show it off to others, like your team or your Board. Slides are for when you’d like to show graphics or add punch to what you’re saying, like a killer hockey stick growth graph. Slides are for when you have a complex bundle of information and you want to circulate it en masse. Back in the day, you’d grab a napkin or a some chalk and sketch out the thing for your colleagues. But today Slides. Don’t. Inspire.

Here’s my biggest beef with slides. The moment you project a deck, your audience isn’t looking at you anymore. (And of course this is why slides make a lot of people comfortable). If you’re planning on making an impactful speech — one where you really connect with your audience — clicking through slides is hard to do with huge presence (unless you’re Hans Rosling, who I’d argue was almost alone in his class of innovative slide-makers).

So what’s a speech-giver to do?

Before you get caught up in the making of a 100-slide deck for your upcoming speech, take a minute. In fact, take fifteen. Do a brainstorm around a really simple storytelling structure. What’s the goal for this speech? What’s the one big thing you want an audience to remember? Oh —and who is this audience? Are you telling them something that’s interesting to them or should you cater your angle more sharply?

And then try this: if you only had to use 3–5 slides (I KNOW BEAR WITH ME), what would they be? Sometimes your best story can be told in a really short amount of slides. English writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch implored us to “Murder your darlings” when writing fiction: I say murder most of the slides in your deck. Less catchy, true, but similarly as poignant in terms of the outcome. And you know what’s even better? Intersperse your slides with black slides, so when you’re finished with each content slide, your audience eye’s can have a rest and they can return and focus their attention on you.

And how do you know if each slide is worth it? Well, it has to be worth drawing attention away from you. It has to earn being a slide in your pruned-back deck. So they shouldn’t just have a bad stock photo with watermark (Oh dear), or one word in bold (inhales sharply) or a long list (ragged breath) and certainly not a thesis-length manifesto (shudder). All those things can be achieved with words from your mouth and animated gestures with your hands — all of which help to draw your audience into you, rather than keeping them at a remove. And if you’re trying to explain 64 reasons why something is/isn’t good, I’d suggest there’s a some overreach going on: certainly a slide detailing each of these 64 reasons won’t save you, either.

Oh and my client? He killed it. We cut the slides down from about 45 to around 10 (admittedly more than I would have liked, but it was so much better), he added a powerful personal story to wrap around the content, and it landed beautifully. The packed audience took pictures of the right, impactful slides to share on social and were kept in thrall throughout. I always watch an audience’s head movements: no one looked away from the speaker for the whole duration, and that’s always the mark of an excellent speech.

About me:

Kate Mason founded Hedgehog + Fox to bring human stories to complex companies around the world. Our clients include Instacart, Waymo, Girls Who Code, and Alto Pharmacy. Say hello@wearehedgehogandfox.com.