The Technical Speaker’s Crutch

Posted by Barry Flanagan on Feb 28th, 2008
2008
Feb 28

The first few years I spent as a frequent technical speaker, I desperately clung to a crutch every single time I stood up in front of the room to speak. I feared that without my crutch I would not only be crippled and unable to stand, but deaf and mute as well. I could not imagine speaking in front of a group without my crutch, and lived in fear of losing it. I have seen many other technical speakers who use the exact same crutch, and are paralyzed by that exact same fear. The marketing name for the crutch is Microsoft PowerPoint.

 

PowerPoint is not designed to be a crutch for speakers, it just happened that way. It is so easy to use PowerPoint as a way to design your talk, remember your points, and as a hand out to the audience afterwards. Fortunately, my manager at the time (George V, great guy) thought I could be saved and arranged for me to take a training class. The first time I went to a Presentation Skills class by Michelle Murphy, she opened my eyes to the possibility that it is "possible to walk and talk in front of a group of people without slides". A few people in the room audibly gasped in horror when Michelle said this. I have to admit, I cringed at the thought. I pictured myself stuttering and stammering my way through a talk, constantly looking back for my crutch and not finding it there. I imagined it would I would think my crutch was still there behind me to help me stand, the way an amputee often imagines the lost limb is still there.

 

Michelle told us we should not use Powerpoint as the last step in a preparation process, not the first. She insisted that if you do not know your topic well enough to speak without slides, you had "no business being in front of the room".  She told us you should not "pack everything you know into the side deck" (another way of saying you have fight the curse of knowledge). Finally, she said you should "NEVER use the slides as a handout!" I think a few people in the class wanted to leave at that point. A few looked ready to just quit their jobs and try to find a new career.

 

I thought I had come a long way as a technical speaker, but I knew I constantly committed all three of these cardinal sins. Any time I had a presentation to give and I had to create the content, the first thing I did was open up PowerPoint to build a slide deck. Once in front of the room, I never read the slides, but I did look to them constantly for guidance. And I always built the slide content with the idea that I had to include every point in great detail so the audience could use it for later reference. I had never considered writing a seperate handout just for the audience.

 

The conventional wisdom as I understood it at that time was that slides were always used as the handout, and any slide deck that was NOT loaded with detail was not useful. Everyone used the slides as a reference point, and pointed to them constantly. Michelle went so far at one point to say "the screen is poison". It was very difficult to imagine presenting without ever referring to the the slides. 

 

Michelle started me down a very long road that day. If I had not been in her audience that day, I would likely still be leaning on that same crutch every single time I stood up in front of the room. Thankfully, Michelle started me on the way to recovery.

 

The real problem for most technical speakers is they don’t realize they have a crutch. They cannot imagine speaking in any other way. The crutch feels like a vital limb, and they cannot imagine speaking without it. The evidence of this is every where. I found some examples that prove this point.

 

The first thing I would like to point to is a site I found after another point Michelle made in her class.  "Would Churchill been nearly as inspirational during the battle of London with slides? Can you imagine Martin Luther King, Jr. with his back turned to the crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial reading his bullet points? Would we remember the Gettysburg address if it was slideware?"

Apparently Michelle was not the only one who asked that last question. Peter Norvig wondered about Lincoln and slideware as well. He took his musings one step further -

 

Back in my hotel room I imagined what Abe Lincoln might have done if he had used PowerPoint rather than the power of oratory at Gettysburg. (I chose the Gettysburg speech because it was shorter than, say, the Martin Luther King "I have a dream" speech, and because I had an idea for turning "four score and seven years" into a gratuitous graph.) A Google search easily found the text of the Gettysburg address, and several articles echoing my frustration, including USA Today writer Kevin Maney’s PowerPoint obsession takes off, which notes that PowerPoint was banned at Sun, and includes the Lincoln idea: "Put another way, imagine if Abe Lincoln had PowerPoint for the Gettysburg Address. ‘OK, this slide shows our nation four score and seven years ago.’" But as far as I could tell, nobody had actually written and published a Gettysburg PowerPoint presentation. (Note: a reader pointed out that John S. Rigden had an article in the March 1990 issue of Physics Today entitled "The Lost Art of Oratory: Damn the Overhead Projector" that also used the Gettysburg Address concept. David Wittenberg and Susan Hessler were nice enough to send me copies.) I started up PowerPoint and let the "Autocontent Wizard" help me create a new presentation. I selected the "Company Meeting (Online)" template, and figured from there I’d be creative in adding bad design wherever possible. I was surprised that the Autocontent Wizard had anticipated my desires so well that I had to make very few changes. Four of the slide titles were taken directly from the template; I only had to delete a few I didn’t need, and add "Not on the Agenda" after "Agenda".

 

 

Peter speculates on how Lincoln would have opened his presentation -

 

And now please welcome President Abraham Lincoln.

Good morning. Just a second while I get this connection to work. Do I press this button here? Function-F7? No, that’s not right. Hmmm. Maybe I’ll have to reboot. Hold on a minute. Um, my name is Abe Lincoln and I’m your president. While we’re waiting, I want to thank Judge David Wills, chairman of the committee supervising the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery. It’s great to be here, Dave, and you and the committee are doing a great job. Gee, sometimes this new technology does have glitches, but we couldn’t live without it, could we? Oh – is it ready? OK, here we go:

 

This is not meant to imply you should not use Powerpoint, of course. But you shouldn’t use it as a crutch.

 

Even very successful (and extremely wealthy) technical speakers are not aware of the crutch to which they cling – including Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer.

 

Photo from Long Zheng from a Steve Ballmer presentation.

Photo by Niall Kennedy

 

"Death by PowerPoint" is a fantastic presentation on SlideShare.net that highlights the problem -

 

 

At the risk of falling victim to the "Curse of Knowledge" in this blog post, there is one more short YouTube video I would like to add. The theme of the video is a 12 Step program to recover from Bad PowerPoint (presented by Dick Carlson at Ignite Seattle) -

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[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rrc4I3-n-9Q]

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Once I learned to avoid using PowerPoint as a crutch, I found myself invigorated and empowered as a speaker. That allowed the crutch to transform from a device that was essential to merely walk and talk to tool that helped me reach out and touch the audience.

 

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9 Responses

  1. Public Speaking for Geeks » Blog Archive » Public Speaking for Geeks - More Bad Powerpoint - February 29, 2008 Says:

    [...] my last post on The Technical Speakers Crutch, I have a couple more follow up videos I wanted to add to have them in the archives. Two more great [...]

  2. Chris M. Says:

    This is a fantastic post. The opening story and the “crutch” metaphor are very memorable. Thanks for such a great read.

  3. Public Speaking for Geeks » Blog Archive » The Secret to Creative Presentations Says:

    [...] public speaking coaches will recommend you outline a presentation as a first step, and not go directly to Powerpoint as I once did. Once I began to use mind maps as my main brainstorming and preparation tool for presentations, I [...]

  4. Public Speaking for Geeks » Blog Archive » But This is a Technical Presentation! Says:

    [...] several times myself in the past, when before I came to understand how heavily I was leaning on the Technical Speaker’s Crutch (more commonly known as PowerPoint). I used that phrase when I still believed that the slides were [...]

  5. Public Speaking for Geeks » Blog Archive » Public Speaking for Geeks - Build a Memory Palace to Lose the Crutch - Part 1 - June 18, 2008 Says:

    [...] of the most common reasons I hear from technical speaker’s for relying on powerpoint as a crutch is it "is impossible to remember everything I need to say". Many powerpoint users say [...]

  6. pearl Says:

    I am following public speaking in my school.So,i tried to search a site for it.But none of it contains a article…Can you help me to solve this problem???

  7. pearl Says:

    by the way i like your site!!

  8. evely pearl apryl denis Says:

    the mind maps memonics are great thanks for the great read

  9. fear of speaking Says:

    having an outline is great to lessen your fear..It really helps a lot..

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