Last week I was deeply immersed (3 days x 14 hours ea) in helping run an NMC Conference in Second Life. Something that has always been obvious came knock me over with a hammer obvious – there is something perversely wrong in communicating something in a 3D space using 2D slides.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by NMC Second Life

What’s even the point?

Frankly, I’ve been in this game long enough and see what too many of us (often me, yes I am Mr Pot calling kettle black) rely too heavily on the linear slide deck to prop up what we are communicating.

It’s not that all slide presentations are bad– its just most of them are ;-) Even with plenty of people getting away from 9 point font (I still saw a session last week with some slides carrying 60+ words) and becoming more Presentation Zen-like, isn’t there still an over-reliance of being driven by the deck?

I’ve never been brave enough to do this– imagine presenting with zero slides. Jared Bendis has done this masterfully at our SL based symposia- in The Future Holds No Dignity: The Death of Ethics in the Digital Age he just sat his avatar on a prop of Lucy’s “The Doctor is In” booth and talked.

Okay, so we are not all audio virtuosos. I know I say “um” too much to do this. But I will suggest that in doing our presentations, we don’t given nearly enough (or any) effort to our voice— projection, inflection, creating excitement. It is merely us just blabbing away. Often in a monoto-zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Versatile presenters like Gardner Campbell spend a lot of time preparing their audio portions, and can really carry a talk with just their voice. Cynthia Calongne, who has presented for us in Second Life countless time, is amazing smooth with an even voice that does convey a pattern of inflection, plus she is so adept at keeping the audio going as she manipulates things like interactive games for the audience.

I can hear the response already “Yeah, but he has that great FM radio voice. I am dull.” And then we cop out, and toss more slides in the deck. I think we can all to do more with our voice- I’ve heard many monotoners talk after a session with a lot more passion, and in a much more vibrant tonal range than their presenting voice. Where do we get the idea that a monotone makes us sound smarter? That stifling the emotional range of natural voice is better?

In our NMC virtual symposia, we spend a lot of effort coaching our presenters on using sets, props, and trying to get them thinking beyond the deck flipping. It is as simple in some places of doing a set like an artist studio, or maybe some props related to metaphors in a topic.

Still thinking in the 3d space, we have seen other approaches to presenting that are slideless– from more like performances (sometimes with real zombies) of Jim Groom, Brian Lamb and Tom Woodward to Kieran Cannistra and Doug McDavid doing more of a back and forth conversation (video) to others being set as a series of role plays with the audience as participants.

Even if you have slide-like content, showing them in a novel, meaningful way helps, like last week, when Kim Anubis, who’s real world company is called The Magicians, wove that metaphor into her talk with a crystal ball:

cc licensed flickr photo shared by NMC Second Life

Again, I am not saying at all that slides are bad, and that one cannot do great presentations with slides.

My colleague Chris did a great talk last week; he had slides, but he filled the spaces in between with his voice- in fact the slides did not drive his message, he drove the slides with what he had to say.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by NMC Second Life

But the energy in the place revved up dramatically, when he started doing a live demonstration:

cc licensed flickr photo shared by NMC Second Life

But more often then not, slides becomes the crutch, the focus. You focus all the effort on the cool images, and cram more in the deck than you can possible flip through.

And yes, I am raising my hand in admission I do this a lot.

But there are, and must be, different modes we can use to present that break free of Slidedeckophelia.

It’s why I relied on many times the last few years the method I concocted using the CoolIris viewer; it is still slides in a way, but with a wall of media, you can, if you plan right, do something where you can go in almost any order. And yes, mostly I plot these too as linear; the most I broke this approach was at Open Education Conference last year with the videos I had laid out for Amazing Stories of Openness. With the videos sprawled across a CoolIris wall, I could pick any of them out and talk about them or play them.

So here I sit after blasting a lot of whats wrong, yet what do I have to offer as other ways? I am not prepared with exact answers, but this is what I suggest:

  • There are more ways to present a talk then a walk through a slide deck.
  • We do not give nearly enough preparation to the most important media we use in a talk– our voice (which is why most links to slide decks are worthless- a presentation file is not a presentation
  • If we shirk away with, “Oh my voice is not strong” or “I am not creative enough to so anything different”… than we are copping out.
  • It is feasible for anyone of us (I can hear you wincing already) to do an effective talk with zero slides.

I am not anti-slides. I am anti-overreliance on slides in our professional communication. As multi-sensory beings, we respond to a variety of inputs; use ’em all (“yeah right, are you presenting with smell now”?)

Again, I am as guilty as the next one in being a Slidedeckopheliac.

But I am aiming at breaking that habit.

One day.

Maybe I’ll give a talk about it.

Without slides.

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. Totally agree, Alan – and good call. Powerpoint/Keynote is like a drug. It lulls us into a false sense of constructing an effective experience. When we use a linear tool we substitute directional organization for effectiveness.

    I would go further to say that thinking in terms of a “presentation” is another problematic trap. If we’re thinking too much about “delivering a presentation” then we’re probably just going to end up yakking at them (and, let’s face it, most of us can’t “talk” anything like Gardner Campbell). When I think of the really effective sessions I’ve attended, they’ve always involved some kind of action on the part of those of us who thought we’d just be sitting in our chairs. They’ve always surprised me (even just a little).

    Perhaps we should think more in terms of being a “director” (as in a movie director), fashioning an experience for people. If we ask ourselves what is our end goal, what would we like them to take away from the hour they spend with us? And then construct the most effective experience to get them there, I suspect that would inch us away from this over-reliance on slides and on “stand and deliver”.

  2. “a presentation file is not a presentation”. Amen! Some of the best presentations/talks I have seen have been slide-less. Not that slides can’t be great when done right, but when you take them away you’re forced to actually PRESENT using voice, compelling stories, humor, etc. and the audience is forced to actually LISTEN (not just read).

  3. And if you accept Tom Woodward and my “Media Giants: Pop Culture Rocks” we will do just that, re-invent the god damn form…again!

  4. Your post reminds me of the NMC Creativity symposium where you all asked presenters to be creative in their style of presentation. The vast majority were creative and that sympoisum’s presentations have really stuck in my mind as a result … using the 3D medium to very good effect. Sadly it never seems to have been repeated in other 3D world symposia/conferences, at least that I’ve attended or viewed later online.

    VWBPE is coming up and I was one of the ‘guilty-as-charged’ ones last year for slidedeckopedia. I hope the people orgnaizing VWBPE pick up on your posting and go back and look at the NMC Creativity event.

  5. Amen. I wave my Tufte in support.

    So what about using Prezi, and what about using a wiki?

    I guess the answer depends, among other things, if you’re presenting in Second Life or not.

    Away from SL, I’ve had some recent fun with Prezi. I’m not sure how much my audiences have gleaned beyond the pleasant shock value. As presenter, I love the concept map aspect, but am not sure everyone can get (or see) that.

    Heading off to present for a day using every thing I can –

  6. Bryan,

    My thoughts apply as much to real life presentations as Second Life.

    It’s not that slides are bad, but it is the singular focus on the deck that is. You are someone, who in person, presents with a lot of slides, but alos a great force of voice with inflection, of weaving stories in.

    I am circling back to the understated power of human voice that should be the primary media, not the droning backdrop to slides.

    We have a long human history of powerful communication that did not rely on talking over 60 slides per hour- from stories around the campfires to stand-up comics, to radio theater to street performers.

  7. What? No jetsons?

    Anyway, recently I’ve been ditching the deck. I did a keynote panel last week. I decided to experiment:

    (1) No Slides
    (2) Write up my talking points as tweets
    (3) Don’t practice, but improvise or riff

    Well, I noticed that my talk got retweet more than usual – and because I wasn’t so focused on my slides – I felt I connected more with the audience.

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