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A presentation is not a document!

January 13, 2012

In a prior post, Why you can’t send them your slides, I wrote that your slides are there to support  your presentation and not to be the presentation. Without you, they shouldn’t work.  Carrying the entire presentation in the slides turns them into slideuments, which then makes them ineffective as visual aids for you, the presenter. If the slides are the presentation, why are you there at all?

Jerry Weissman, Presenting to Win, has this to say about that topic:

book cover imageA presentation is a presentation and only a presentation. . . never a document. After all, Microsoft provides Word for documents and PowerPoint for presentations. And never the twain shall meet.

Be sure to distribute the handouts only after the presentation. If you distribute them before or during the presentation, your audience members will flip through them as you speak, and they won’t listen to what you have to say.

If you’re asked to provide a copy of your presentation for a conference so that the slides can be printed in book form, use PowerPoint’s Notes Page view. That way, you’ll maintain the integrity of your slides as purely presentation material.

If you’re asked to provide a copy of the presentation in advance, as so often happens, especially in the venture capital and financial sector, politely offer to provide a business plan or executive summary… as a document. And create that document with Microsoft Word, not PowerPoint.

I couldn’t agree more with Jerry on all of that.

Image of road sign: danger wrong way turn backHowever in the corner of the business world where I sit, that advice while correct, is often made irrelevant by management insistence on:
1) content on the slides (slideuments) and
2) distributing the slides in advance of the session. Yes, exactly what Weissman puts on his “don’t do this list.”

That road sign is the message I’d like send when that happens. Just like the drivers who see that road sign, they’re already on a dangerous path, headed in the wrong direction. Every chance I get, I suggest a change in direction, an “alternative” approach.  And just telling them their way is stupid is not recommended 🙂 — there can be a steep a price to being right here.


  • Sometimes I can get a positive response to the idea of sending out an executive summary paper in advance instead of the slides, and it’s always worth trying.
  • Occasionally, I can convince the-powers-that-be we should reduce the content on the slides, add the material to the Notes Pages and use those as a leave-behind or handout and not the slides.
  • Sometimes I just do it and take the “ask forgiveness, not permission” approach.

In the end, the reality is that there’s often just no way to get it done “right” when someone else defines “right.”  The odd thing is that when I do (or design) a presentation that isn’t constrained, I normally get a lot of positive feedback, ironically sometimes from the same people who insist that another approach won’t work. >sigh< But I’ll keep trying and so should you.  The sad thing is that the ”bar” on presentations is so low that even small improvements can make you stand out from the crowd in a positive way. Never forget:

Presentation is the killer skill we take into the real world. It’s almost an unfair advantage.
The McKinsey Mind

Related post

Book Review: Presenting to win the art of telling your story

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 13, 2012 08:29

    I’m just popping in to voice disagreement. Not to troll, mind you, because I understand what frames your perspective and I respect and like your writing, but rather to say that this perspective on presentations need not be the only one.

    Yes, there are practices in the business world that are detrimental to communication. Handing out ill prepared sliduments in advance of a presentation is chief among them. One wonders why people continue to shoot themselves in the foot. And yet this does not mean that using slides in the way you propose is the ONLY way. It is helpful in a lot of cases. But it is not the solution to all problems. In fact, for very particular scenarios I actually advise using sliduments that are tailormade for a communication objective.

    For communication to be successful you just need to think beyond the established conventions and shackles of presentation software sometimes and perhaps take a different perspective on how you define a presentation. At least if you want to be open to effective alternatives. Sometimes a presentation (in the textbook definition) is the wrong medium to convey information in the first place. But that’s not something you are likely to learn from McKinsey who are, after all, in the business of selling presentations.

    • January 28, 2012 19:14

      Jakob — thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I’m not sure how much we’re in disagreement. One of the “rules” is to know when to break them. Still, I’ve personally not seen an occasion where the presenter puts a bunch of slides on the screen that are full of words in small font sizes and been effective, unless they were used just as handouts. One on-screen slide that’s full of text, maybe. A presentation with dozens of those? I don’t know any way to pull that off and be very effective. Many presentations I do have specific requirements that end up making slideuments–at least for me, it’s really hard to be as effective as I want to be like that.

      Often the problem gets compounded by the way too many presenters use them–the person stands there and reads them or talks over them. Reading them is really bad and if you have words on the screen, the audience is going to read them–they can either pay attention to the text or you talking, but not both.

      And I certainly agree that presenters should reach beyond the usual software–there’s a post or two all about that–but the fact remains that most associate presentations with presentation software, making slides and projecting them. I wish folks would get away from that, but in the business and government environments I have experience with, Presentation = go make slides.

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