We are giving a talk, say, about growing roses, so we put a slide of favorite rose varieties up on the screen behind us. Then a slide of tips for growing roses in different climates. Okay. That could work. We know that visuals can help our audience to understand and remember.
And while the folks in the audience are looking at the screen, they are not looking at us. Whew! The cure for public-speaking panic.
Nobody ever did it as purely as Gertrude Stein, because everybody gets the story in the way somehow or other, or gets themselves in the way. She really went word, word, word, word, word. You know how musicians talk about Mozart? Well, that is the way Stein is as a writer in my mind. .Lew Welch 1
Gertrude Stein was an American novelist, poet, and playwright. Born in Pittsburgh and raised in Oakland, she moved to Paris in 1903 and lived there for the rest of her life. American poet Lew Welch, writing in the 1960s, would have us all read Stein to the deep. I agree. Oh yes, I am with him on that.
So what might we learn from her rose quote as it pertains to us choosing slides for our presentation? And later, if we read her, more to think about when we think about slides. But for now …
Thinking about slide presentations and “a rose is a rose is a rose,” 2 I did read more Stein and I saw how she used repetition and rhythm. Each time around, it goes a little more digging in or sideways in. Care in every set of words. Repetition/Attention. Repetition/Memory. Repetition/Understanding.
Following from this musing about the rose quote and repetition, we could use one commond slide strategy: that is, to illustrate (repeat) in our visuals the ideas, thoughts, and opinions we talk about in our talk, ergo, for a talk on roses, behind you on slides, put up rose pictures and rose facts. Just be careful. Remember you don’t want your viewers to be reminded of another Stein often-quoted phrase “there is no there there.”3
The danger of slides that illustrate your talk, of course, is that there will be only redundancy—your words and the images are repetition only, nothing going any deeper. Sometimes speakers use slides not to clarify or illustrate but to save preparation time and reduce speaker anxiety.
This has led to the not-so-unusual-of-late practice of putting one’s presentation—speech, talk—on slides using bullet points and then reading the slides.
Reading a list of facts about the rose that is the exact text on the slide that folks see. Not so good. For one, they can read faster than we can talk so our audience has read these facts before we have finished speaking these facts. Not so good.
They can turn to their phones, assured that they have missed nothing. Unless, of course, your slides are in such small print or in an elaborate font that they can’t read anything. But that is another kettle of fish. When we read our slides, we can so easily lose the connection with our audience.
So maybe don’t write the presentation out on slides in order to read them. This is a talk, not a read. For some thoughts on how to connect with our audience without panic with or without slides, see any book or webpage by Garr Reynolds. For how to design slides that are not just the talk, see Robin Williams’ The Non-Designers’ Presentation Book.
What is “A Talk”?
Talk is how we connect with one another as human beings. The poet Lew Welch would say it is “the din of the Tribe doing its business. You can’t control it, you can’t correct it, you can only listen to it and use it as it is.”4
We say how are you today? We say I had a tooth pulled yesterday so I’m moving slow this morning. Or we say my kid just made his first friend at kindergarten so I’m feeling proud and sort of successful as a parent. And you say oh that’s great or that’s too bad. I know how that is.
Talking to one another feels good and binds us to one another. We are a binding species. Social animals. We rely on the family, the neighborhood, the town, the country in order to just survive. We have a need for each other.
And talking to each other is one way we survive. We tell each other stories. We have always been telling each other stories. This is how we teach our young and introduce ourselves to strangers.
Talk: we get information we need, like the tornado is coming tonight, board up the windows and let’s get lots of water inside. Oh thanks. We didn’t know. Too busy lately. Our three sheep went missing last night.
Many presentations today are basically lectures, a method of transmitting information already known to the presenter/speaker/teacher/lecturer. And this is fine.
It is one reason to present a talk to a group. And most slides in these presentations are visual renderings of the information that the speaker wishes to share with the audience. The slides illustrate and help us understand what the speaker is talking about.
But in un-artful performances, as many business-update meetings are, the speakers read their slides, adding no more information than is present in the slides.
The best illustrative slides contain information that shows more than just something equal to what the speaker says. The visuals add more. One masterful example of this is Hans Roslin’s Ted Talk on The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen.
The density of information presented, the charismatic enthusiasm of Rosling, the technical expertise of the work his team produces, the humor, the questions posed to the audience — there are lots of things here that can help us think about what to do in front of an audience and how to use visuals.
And for more information about Rosling’s work, check out Gapminder.org. Gapminder slides and posters are free to use and modify in any way you like. And consider taking the Gapminder Test. See how much you already know about the world now.
- Welch, Lew. How I Read Gertrude Stein, CA: Grey Fox Press, 1996: vii.
- Stein, Gertrude. “Sacred Emily.” (1913) Geography and Plays. Boston: Four Seas, 1922: 178-188.
- ____________. Everybody’s Autobiography. NY: Cooper Square, 1971: 289. On why this is really not about Oakland, see https://www.huffpost.com/entry/oakland-in-popular-memory_b_1560227 and http://booksearch.blogspot.com/2012/02/gertrude-stein-puts-there-back-in.html.
- Welch, Lew. “Language is Speech.” How I Work as a Poet. CA: Grey Fox Press, 1973: 31.
Once I lived in an upstairs room with a single window in it. Outside the window was a large date palm tree. Every sparrow for miles around slept in that palm tree. The din each evening was unbelievable, and it was the same thing every dawn, hundreds of sparrows chattering to each other about where they were to sleep and how it went last night or whatever.
That is language. Speech. The din of a Tribe doing is business. You can’t control it. you can’t correct it, you can only listen to it and use it as it is.Lew Welch4
Resources: Designing Slides
There are some excellent books on creating and designing slides for your presentation listed here. And they can help you sort how just how to illustrate your talk so that it works well for you as a speaker and for your audience.
- French, Katy. “Eleven Tips for Beautiful Presentations.” Visage, November 24, 2016, accessed August 30, 2020. https://visage.co/11-design-tips-beautiful-presentations/
- Reynolds, Garr. Presentation Zen Design: Simple Design Principles and Techniques to Enhance Your Presentations (2nd Edition). New Riders, CA, 2013.
- _______________. Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery (2nd Edition). New Riders, CA, 2011.
- _______________. The Naked Presenter: Delivering Powerful Presentations With or Without Slides. New Riders, CA, 2011.
- _______________. “Top Ten Slide Tips.” GarrReynolds.com (n.d.) accessed August 30, 2020. http://www.garrreynolds.com/preso-tips/design/.
- Rosling, Hans. Gapminder.org, accessed August 30, 2020.
- Williams, Robin. The Non-Designer’s Presentation Book: Principles for Effective PresentationDesign (2nd edition). Peachpit Press, CA, 2017.
Powerpoint & Complicated Data
- Tufte, Edmund. The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within. Second Edition. CT: Graphics Press, CT, 2006. (Presenting complicated data and the problem with PowerPoint).
Gertrude Stein & Lew Welch
- Gopnik, Adam. Understanding Steinese. New Yorker, June 21, 2013.
- Stein, Gertrude. How to Write. NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1975.
- ________________. Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. Edited by Carl Van Vecton. NY: The Modern Library, 1945,1946, 1960.
- Welch, Lew. How I Read Gertrude Stein. CA: City Lights/Grey Fox Press, 1996, 2001.
Robert Creeley on Lew Welch’s writing about Stein: “Rarely indeed does one have a chance to witness such attention so finely attuned. Lew Welch’s early take on his great mentor’s primary works is testament to his own exceptional authority, as reader and writer alike. His insights are fundamental to our recognition of Stein as the bedrock genius she always was for him. He says it all here with such clarity.”
- ___________. How I Work as a Poet. CA: Grey Fox Press, 1961, 1973.
- ___________. Ring of Bone: Collected Poems. CA: City Lights/Grey Fox Press, 2012.
This post was originally published on January 10, 2019 and updated in September 2020.
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