Sliding into the Void

Knut Melvær
Nov 1, 2016 · 6 min read

Five reasons why you should quit your slide deck and become a better presenter.

I used to love Keynote. As an aspiring academic it was long my secret superpower. In a world drowned in ill-formed PowerPoint presentations painted with 12pt text and low resolution images, it wasn’t really that difficult to stand out from the crowd. Keynote came with some good defaults, and I was aware of the presentation ethoses of the Merlin Manns and the Garr Reynolds out there. Hence, my slides consisted mostly of images and a small amount of text that highlighted my point. I tried my best to live by the dictum, What Would Tufte Do?

In my university teaching, my slide deck was also the backbone of any session I taught. Even though they were sparse on text, I used Keynote to structure my thoughts and lectures. I loved to use juxtaposing imagery, pop cultural references or just funny pictures to prove some point. It was partly compensating for either insufficient scholarly experience or low self-esteem, but it was also motivated by my fear of being boring for 2 x 45 minutes. Keynote and my digital slides, allowed me to express some part of my quirky personality — and to my biased perception, it mostly worked, i.e. it got the laughs. Not sure about the learning though.

Since I have left academia to be employed as a consultant at a digital user experience design firm, I have developed a growing unrest with Keynote and the concept of a slide deck overall. Our slides still surpass most of what you’ll see in the corporate world in style and finish. My unrest doesn’t come from an aestetic displeasure, but from a communicative one. We tend to default to slide decks. If there is a client meeting, there is a slide deck. If there is a presentation, there is a slide deck. If there is a workshop, there is slide deck. We even send our client sales offers, in a Keynote slide deck. It’s the hammer and everything is a nail problem. The Keynote slide deck has become our Times New Roman of presentation tools — it’s not a choice, it’s the absence of choice. And I suspect that we’re not the only ones. That’s why I have decided to give up* slides, and think that you should too.

1. You are great, but you are still a slideshow slave

Yeah, I know about the asynchronous rollercoaster that is Prezi, but fact is that your slideshow will hold you hostage to a linear narrative that you have set up beforehand. That may work if you’re doing a presentation at TED, but in a meeting, or a website design presentation, it tends to hold you back, rather than empower you. I’ve been in many meetings with clients where my slide deck fell flat, because of some key figure that could only be there for a certain time in the meeting, or because the discussion didn’t go as expected. Too much time is spent on collectively browsing the deck after that one slide someone want to discuss. Your slide deck is a sequence of assumptions about how your meeting will go down. You can still be damned prepared without a slide deck, and it’s way easier to appear in control if you don’t have a large glowing sequence of assumptions that negates the presentation that is you.

2. Your slides may be great, but you are boring

Too many times I have seen lecture and meeting attendees doze off because the presenter talks to the screen rather than the living crowd in the room. You don’t want to become a talking dorsum. It’s easy enough to forget to use and vary your voice and be observant of the reactions in the room, even if you use a clicker and a presenter’s screen. It’s a paradox that we worry so much about what people think, that we escape into our predefined script of imagery and talking points. And by that end being worse than bad, namely uninteresting. Use index cards, a structured list on a paper, a mind map or just spend the time rehearsing your points with collegaues. Heck, go to a storytelling course. You don’t need a slide deck to remember your points, you need presence. All we want is to connect, but our slides keep getting in our way.

3. Your time is wasted moving pixels

Keynote has some great tools to help you align your text’n’images on the deck. There’re good reasons for Google to tout it as a prototyping sprint tool. That being said, if you’re in design or have any urge to make things look good, you’ll find yourself spending a lot of time adjusting your deck, searching for just the right image, or tweaking your subtle animations to get them just right. Your time is better spent rehearsing your arguments, finding the crux of the problem you want to solve, or researching who is your audience. Perhaps you worry about the obligatory request for your slide deck, but your audience is better off with a plain text list of your main points and links of interest. Newsflash: No one will appreciate that perfectly placed text box more than you anyway.

4. You want to become a great presenter, not a Keynote-guru

If you want to evolve as a meeting presenter or even a lecturer, you’re better off reading up on rhetoric, rather than spending your time mastering Keynote. Learning the gist about ethos, logos and pathos will get you way further than any secret artsy high resolution image repository you may find on the web. Learning how to modulate your voice, taking pauses at the right time, using the room effectively, visualizing your argument on white boards and how to facilitate good discussions are skills that will help you sell and make great design. Choosing just the right animated GIF, or tweaking the heading of a slide to perfectly encapsulate your point, however, will not.

5. Every deck is an island.

A huge challenge which, granted, may be solved technologically, is that most slide decks are digital islands. One of the most frequent requests in our Slack-channels is for great slides on topic X, Y or Z. Yeah, we share all our documents in the cloud file sharing solution of the world’s best search engine, but it will not find Keynote-documents for you based on its contents. Services like slides.com has come a bit longer in the way of making it easier to draw from each other’s presentations, but there is still an unecessary amount of delay. After all, what are we trying to achieve? Most often we want the slide of our design process, or the one who shows who works with what at our firm, or even that funny slide that emphasize some clever point about user experience. But any web design firm that evangelizes responsive design and bad-mouths the PDF-file for being outdated, should not rely on a slide deck to present their work. If your website can’t be used in a meeting to present your team and the key take-away points of your process, you have a larger problem.

At Netlife Research we increasingly move towards presenting our design work in progress in a live HTML prototype or in Sketch. It creates a more fluent environment for discussion, it’s more transparent, and it invites the clients into the design processes. To fix that thing™ in code during a meeting, is way more impressive than any polished slide deck you may knit together. Remember that from a client’s standpoint, most often than not, it’s a privilege to see you do what they hired you to do, that is, to solve problems (and not to make Keynote-presentations).

* I can’t promise you that I’ll quit Keynote altogether. I still have to be a good colleague and play ball when needed, but I’ll sure give you a hard time if you want me to participate in a deck with the new Keynote collaboration features.

Netlife

Vi løser digitale hverdagsproblemer! / We make stuff that works.

Thanks to Raymond Julin.

Knut Melvær

Written by

Developer relations 🥑 @sanity_io // @css @freecodecamp @thepraticaldev contributor // co-host of https://smalldifferences.fireside.fm

Netlife

Netlife

Vi løser digitale hverdagsproblemer! / We make stuff that works.