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Does Presentation Anarchy Rule?


By Mark Kretschmar

As a presenter, you can and should be in complete command of the audience. Using current rules, anarchy reigns, and it’s costly.

Well-intentioned rules are hurting your presentation skills. This problem is compounded when we look at several rules at the same time and see the dysfunctional presentation culture they create.

 A Deadly Affliction

We’ve all been in too many presentations where the presenter advances slide after slide of bullet points and reads them from the screen. We begin to contemplate sticking a pencil in our eye as an excuse to leave the room. This horrific presentation style gave birth to the term “Death by PowerPoint.” And it lives on because most don’t know they are carriers.

 Killed By The Cure

In an attempt to remedy this problem, the rule makers began rolling out the edicts-of-prevention to inoculate us against Death by PowerPoint. You’ve heard the rules and I’ve already debunked some of them in previous posts.

These are some edicts-of-prevention:

  • 6X6 (or 5x5x5, or 7×7) rule.
  • Don’t read the bullet points, paraphrase.
  • Don’t talk to the screen.

The result of this group of rules is an instilled fear of interacting with slides at all for fear of breaking a rule. In order to be “good presenters” as defined by the rule makers, we essentially ignore our slides. Because most slides are bullet lists anyway, that’s actually a good idea for the audience too, but it makes slides useless, and unfortunately, it’s hard to ignore slides.

 Why The Cure Kills

The reptilian brain (more about that in an upcoming post) can’t ignore changes in the environment. Your audience will notice when the slide changes. What are they supposed to do then? The seeds of anarchy are sown.

Here’s the sequence of events. The slide changes. They can’t help but look at the slide. The presenter essentially ignores the slide and continues to speak. The presenter’s words are different from the slide because “you’re not supposed to read the slides.” Because it is impossible to read and hear two different streams of language, they either ignore the slide and look back at the presenter or they ignore the presenter and read the slide, thereby missing whatever the presenter is saying (See Don’t Be Useless Rule). Working memory is quickly overloaded during the “confusion interval” and any associated content is lost.

 Confusion and Anarchy

They’re trying to determine what they are supposed do. Suddenly, all their precious cognitive energy is spent gathering decision-making data: information about the slide, your intonation, what others are doing, and more causing cognitive overload. This hurts you. You want all of their cognitive energy working for you, not against you.

Why give them a choice? It isn’t democracy or freewill; it’s anarchy. It’s your presentation; be in charge. Own every aspect of the room. You are there to influence what they think, feel, or do. Their attention should be focused where you want it focused. Don’t allow this anarchy in your presentation.

 Authority vs. Anarchy

You designed the slide because you wanted them to see something. Because you’re an excellent rule breaker, it’s a rare thing that you create a bullet list (see Breaking the 6X6 Rule). When you display the slide, invite them to look at it. The best way to invite them to look at it is with a gesture. For example, hold out your hand as a clear indication that they should be looking at the slide now. While your hand is out, describe what they are seeing. This description will satisfy the brain’s curiosity about the slide and once they feel they’ve consumed the slide, they’re ready, emotionally and cognitively, to once again give you their undivided attention. Drop your hand so their attention comes back to you and continue.

 Winning the Day

Like a benevolent leader, you’re clear direction of their attention will help them relax. They won’t suffer those little stresses of confusion and ambiguity and they will trust your authority — that’s credibility and it has a significant impact on influence. All of their cognitive energy is available to you to receive and process your carefully planned presentation to full effectiveness. Another victory for the rule breakers!


To increase your value by bringing your communication skills up to match your technical skills, contact Mark at mark@engineerspeak.com or 651-728-0352 and check out the helpful, free content on engineerspeak.com.