To Read Or Not to Read? – A Power Point Presenter’s Predicament (or Quandary)

“Stop reading the slides to us. We all know how to read!” The loud remark came from a man in the third row of my audience. More than a little embarrassed, I remember stumbling through the rest of the presentation – one of my first using Power Point.

That was just after Power Point was introduced, and it seemed like a magic tool. Of course, now decades later, most Power Point presentations have become a deadly weapon, boring tens of thousands of unwilling participants around the world.

I never forgot the lesson from my outspoken participant-and very soon came to be irritated whenever anyone read the slides in a Power Point presentation to me. Eventually, I also figured out that “less is more.” In all of my presentations, I tried to reduce each slide to the widely-accepted standard of excellence: no more than four bullets on a slide and 5 words or less in a bullet.

Last week, I gave a presentation to a group of professionals where the majority were disabled. Because I am aware of the sensitivities around certain words and phrases, I invited them to indicate with a wave if I was in any way being insensitive. Because there were at least three people with impaired vision in the room, I knew intuitively that I needed to explain some of the slides. However, very quickly I realized that two participants, both in wheelchairs and fully sighted, had been waving at me. When I paused, one woman said, “When speakers use powerpoint with people who are disabled, it is important to read every slide so that everyone can fully participate. In addition, you need to describe any graphics or pictures in detail…”

Wait a minute. That’s the opposite of what I had been told by the man in the third row. And, I thought I was doing a pretty good job of summarizing the slides and describing some of the graphics. When I told her of my earlier experience, she said something very interesting: “In many audiences that are not predominantly composed of people with disabilities, several in the room may be struggling with their contacts or forgot their glasses. It’s not only a courtesy but a way to educate people about the need for sensitivity.”

“Yes,” I said. “But what about the other people in the room that are bored with being read to?” I confess that I can’t remember her response. I think it was something about that fact that they needed to learn to accommodate others who are different from them.

What I should have added was that many are totally bored but will also give the speaker negative ratings-guaranteeing that no future invitation will be forthcoming.

There is a simple solution of course: the speaker emails the Power Point presentation in advance. And that would end the discussion for most. For me, however, I make alterations in my presentation some times up to the last minute. But more than that, I don’t want the audience to have read the Power Point slides in advance. I use them as an adjunct to my presentation. Almost like a garnish for a good meal.

I suppose I could ask for a list of all of the people attending who have a vision problem. That’s a little awkward, never mind confusing, and perhaps even insulting. Or, I could invite those with vision impairment to bring their laptops and supply them with a copy to follow along with on their adaptive software. The problem with that is that not everybody owns a laptop-and its use during a presentation is distracting to say the least. Or, I could make an announcement at the beginning that I would be reading slides to accommodate people who a vision impairment but that still leaves the problem of boring the rest of the group to distraction. And then there is the issue of accommodating people whose hearing is impaired.

Fortunately, society has come a long way in recognizing that there has to be accommodation for our colleagues who are disabled. However, for either side to draw a line in the sand saying, “This is the way it has to be,” is counterproductive.

As usual, compromise is the only option. The speaker can read some of the shorter slides (and all of them should be shorter) but summarize the more complicated ones. The fully-sighted people need to get better at handling some slides being read to them. The visually-impaired people need to accept being read to periodically. And the speaker needs to remember to consider the needs and desires of both.

A challenge? Of course. But isn’t that what makes life interesting? And, maybe, when both needs are considered, we can actually begin to learn from each other.

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