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Speechless

Listening to a few-weeks-old This Week In Tech podcast this morning on the train, a bit of chatter between John C. Dvorak and the gang caught my ear…

Dvorak
Over the years I gave a lot of speeches and over the years I’ve used everything: I’ve produced films and put them up…
Laporte
You used to use your Amiga! Didn’t you?
Dvorak
Right. Video Toaster, I’d make some presentations that way. Also I spoke without PowerPoints for a while…
Laporte
How is that? Because I’m thinking of doing that.
Dvorak
No! Don’t do it!
Others
[Laughter]
Dvorak
I’ll tell you why.
Laporte
Like an old-fashioned speech! You speak!
Dvorak
It doesn’t work! It doesn’t work. What happens is: people are so used to looking for some diversion, something up on the screen, that if you think you’re gonna stand up there in this day and age and entertain people you better be the best speaker in the world. I mean, when you’re just up there talking cold with nothing for somebody to glance at or any talking notes, you have to be looking down a lot because you gotta see what you’re gonna be talking about. With PowerPoint you just look at the slide because it just triggers what your thoughts are. This is, of course, normal professional speaking where you’re not just sitting there reading a paper, which as far as I’m concerned I don’t understand why people even give a speech like that. You might as well just mail it to me.
Gibson
Exactly, just hand it out.
Dvorak
Yeah, hand it out, I don’t need to have you read it. Most of these people can’t read very well.
Laporte
I do, like you, find myself using more video, audio, multimedia, and fewer slides: I don’t put a lot of text on slides and I don’t use as many slides.
Dvorak
I just use them as talking points, and people can refer to them or sometimes they wanna see the slideshow or they wanna download it afterwards or whatever, but if you think you can go out there and give cold speeches without PowerPoints in this day and age to these audiences it’s a huge mistake. You gotta have something. It doesn’t have to be PowerPoint, it’s just gotta be something up there. That’s just the way it is, I’ve experimented, you just don’t get the results you’re looking for when you just stand up there and pontificate.

Part of me agrees with the man. If there’s a forty foot white screen behind you and it’s blank, not even illuminated, people may wonder what your deal is: put up a photo that illustrates your point, or a video feed of your head so they aren’t staring down from their tiered seating to your tiny little podium-bound figure. The other part of me says Dvorak has just seen too many lousy speeches, and given too many lousy speeches, to believe anymore that a great speech can be delivered without a crutch. He’s given up.

Obviously, I disagree. I’ve seen dozens of fantastic speeches, and have delivered a handful myself (modest, too), that don’t depend on that kind of crap. When you’re speaking, people are there to see you, to listen to you. Anything on the screen, particularly if it’s text, is a distraction. Try listening to your local news anchor and reading the headline ticker along the bottom of the screen at the same time. It’s a diversion of attention, and it’s pointless.

I gotta say, at least the man is humble enough to admit he isn’t the best speaker in the world, but it’s lousy advice. If you’re a bad speaker, maybe you shouldn’t be giving speeches. If you’re a bad writer but a great speaker, maybe you just shouldn’t be writing your speeches. If you need a good enough example of people “in this day and age” delivering speeches without half-assed props and crutches, look to your world leaders. People watch and listen to these speakers because they feel they must, because they feel they will be better informed for having paid attention. If your audience is getting bored listening to you speak, then sure — maybe you do need to spice up your presentations.

Or maybe you’re speaking to the wrong crowd.