Nowadays, PowerPoint slides and talks have become almost inseparable. From scientific discoveries to church sermons, almost every talk you can imagine will be accompanied by a series of slides with a dash of blue backgrounds and, if course, generous amounts of bullet points.
Of course, there are competitors to PowerPoint but even they are founded on the same mentality: talks must come with flashy visuals. We have turned into a generation of speakers who feel distinctly uncomfortable unless something is projected onto a screen behind us.
But do we have to share the stage?
I recently announced to my officemate that, for my next talk, I am going back to basics: pen, paper and hand-outs. He was shocked. After a short laugh, he said “but will people still learn?”
Good question. Did people learn from textbooks before we had the internet? Did people use dictionaries before they came on CD? Did anyone learn when lecturers wrote on blackboards or whiteboards or (oh the horror!) acetates?
Those questions are deliberately facetious but they are still serious. How easy is it to spend more time on developing your PowerPoint slides than actually thinking about the people who will be listening to you talk? How many of us spend more time on writing a contents slide than actually thinking about the contents the slide covers?
My point is not that PowerPoint or Prezi or any other similar programme is inherently wrong. Slides have been and remain powerful tools for helping to get a message across. But they are just that: tools. There is a great danger in feeling that we have to do a talk with slides. Why not, just for once, use physical visuals alone or even none at all!
It is truly wonderful to see people get creative with slides but creativity throughout the entire talk is even better. In the theatre, you learn about creativity through manipulating sight lines and the different symbolic meanings of different parts of the stage. In performance, you can learn about how movement can underscore or undercut what is said and how many people want to relate to the performer as a person, not just as an expert.
Isn’t there something we can learn here? A talk can be much more than one person plus a score of slides. It can be a meeting of minds, the beginning of a debate, a declaration of intent, an instance of personal expression and much, much more. Thinking of visuals of any kind as only one aspect of the talk pushes us to think about things like movement, intonation, repetition, structure and all the techniques that people knew and loved before a single bullet point appeared on a screen.
Perhaps it’s time we learned how to learn, teach and speak without a bullet point in sight.