You may be familiar with the famous scene from the British comedy Only Fools and Horses, in which Derek “Del Boy” Trotter leans against a bar in order to appear casual in front of two women he’s attempting to impress.
He straightens up at one point, and while he’s upright a waiter walks past, lifting the section of the bar that Del Boy has been leaning on. Not thinking to check, Trotter leans back towards the bar … and falls flat on the floor.
As well as being really funny, this scene is also a salutary lesson for public speakers. Leaning too heavily on anything – especially when one takes its presence for granted – can often lead you to look very silly indeed.
In expert-speak, anything that is not the speaker and their speech is a “speaker support”: think PowerPoint, Keynote, Pressie or even props. We’ve all seen speakers who cling to their slides as if they are a shipwrecked sailor and the slides their driftwood. This method is almost always distracting and counter-productive.
When you are speaking, your audience wants to engage with you. They are less interested in reading several screens of bullet points or digesting a generous pie-chart. If you over-rely on your speaker supports to deliver content, you will fail to communicate very much at all. Your audience’s attention will be split between your words and your slides, and they’ll absorb very little of either.
Likewise, some speakers use their graphics as a sort of prompter, including most of their script on-screen. The worst offenders resort to reading the words on the slide out to the audience, rendering their entire presentation very static and unentertaining.
Audiences want to believe you are convinced by your own words. The best way to achieve that is to make them seem spontaneous. Reading off a screen is no way to demonstrate conviction.
Similarly, audiences have a limited capacity to remember what you say. Focus on a few key points and deliver them memorably. Don’t use slides like footnotes, cramming so much onto them that nothing can get through.
Speaker supports are best used as a tool. As the name implies, they are there to help you deliver what you would have done anyway, not carry the full weight of a presentation. If your speech can be made effectively without speaker supports, then you are on the right track. They are there only to emphasise and accentuate.
That’s why, as a speaker, you shouldn’t lean too heavily on anything. Like Del Boy, you never know when it might be taken away.