Whither PowerPoint: When to tell and when to show

In this exclusive excerpt from his new guide to speechwriting, 10 Steps to Writing a Vital Speech, Fletcher Dean confronts the thorniest dilemma in communication.

The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings … in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it.

-Edward R. Murrow

Edward R. Murrow, the famous architect of the early CBS News staff, knew perhaps more than anyone the power of the spoken word and the power of the visual. He began his professional career, after all, in radio, where the only way to communicate was through words, carefully chosen, to paint a picture in the audience’s mind.

Later, of course, Murrow was able to physically combine words and pictures when he moved over to television. It was a technology he seemed to have many reservations about but still used as well as any newsman of his day. He understood the influence visuals provided to move people when words could not. But, as most good news people do today, he never forgot that it’s difficult to pass along the heavy stuff—understanding and realization—with words alone. It was Murrow who said, “Just once in a while let us exalt the importance of ideas and information.”

Today, Murrow’s battle goes on and we still face his dilemma of “what to say and how to say it.” Should you show … or tell? For a lot of speechwriters, it boils down to this: Use PowerPoint or another computer-based presentation system … or write a traditional speech?

Unfortunately, making this decision isn’t even an issue for many people today. Especially for those working in corporate America, there is an unconscious bias for showing through the use of computer-built presentations. Everyone from the silver-haired CEO in the corner office to the newly minted MBA grad has somehow come to believe that charts and slides showing financial information and market share is enough to persuade audiences.

In fact, many corporate people actually think in PowerPoint and you’ll hear things like: “How many slides do you think this will take?” or “I want to do this presentation in no more than 10 slides.”

As a result, PowerPoint becomes their master and, often, their only muse. PowerPoint presentations, in other words, run amuck in the business world because most of these leaders have never been told that data alone is rarely the key factor in creating understanding or eliciting action.

As a speechwriter, however, you should make a conscious decision not only about what to say, but how to say it. Should you show (with PowerPoint)? Or should you tell (with words)? Forget what everyone else is doing and make your decision based on what’s right for your audience and your message.

There are times when PowerPoint is absolutely the right choice just as there are more times when it is absolutely the wrong choice. Knowing when and why can make a huge difference in whether you speaker is heard and understood.

The smart speechwriter will work backwards from the desired conclusion and develop a talk or presentation that supports the goal. Therefore, using a formal speech or talk versus a computer presentation such as PowerPoint should be determined by the type of talk you’re giving and what you want to accomplish. The truth is that different formats have different attributes and send vastly different signals to the audience.

When should you use PowerPoint and when should you not? It depends on what you’re trying to achieve. In general, PowerPoint works best when you’re trying to simply inform an audience, or create an understanding of a concept. But the more you’re trying to achieve—like reinforcing values, changing attitudes or eliciting action—the less you can rely on technology to help you, and the more you have to carry off with your words and your body language.

In the end, each format has advantages and disadvantages you need to consider, depending on what you want to accomplish.

Award-winning speechwriter Fletcher Dean is author of the new book, 10 Steps to Writing a Vital Speech, published by Vital Speeches of the Day. The book officially launches next month, but advance copies are available for sale.

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