The “4S” Approach To Showing PowerPoint Slides

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 8, 2012 – 6:02 AM

I’ve seen thousands of PowerPoint presentations over the past decade.

The majority of speakers present slides in the same way. They finish presenting the information contained on one slide, click to the next slide, and speak about the new slide, often reading it to the audience verbatim.

That approach is problematic for many reasons.

PowerPoint Woman

First, those speakers don’t give the audience any time to take in the new information, forcing audience members to choose between absorbing the material on the slide or listening to the speaker.

Second, the audience can read five times quicker than the presenter can speak, meaning that the members of the audience are already ahead of the presenter. They don’t need the speaker to read slides to them verbatim.

Third, by clicking to the next slide before introducing it, the audience may conclude that the speaker needs to see the next PowerPoint slide in order to remember what comes next in their own presentation.

There’s a better way to present each new PowerPoint slide, which I refer to as the “4S” approach:

1. Set It Up

Before clicking to the next slide, set it up by introducing the concept on the upcoming slide first. For example, you might say:

“Now that you’ve heard about our plan to save hundreds of thousands of dollars in shipping costs next year, I’d like to talk to you about something exciting we can do with all of that extra cash.”


2. Show It

Click to the next slide only after you’ve finished setting it up.


3. Stop Talking

This is the hardest step for most speakers. After you’ve clicked to the next slide, don’t speak for a few moments. Give your audience time to take in the new information before continuing to talk—if you continue speaking before they’ve had a chance to fully take in your slide, they won’t hear you anyway. One study, cited in The Definitive Book of Body Language, found that when there’s a battle between the eye and the ear, the eye wins 70 percent of the time.

Most speakers feel uncomfortable with silence, so they begin speaking again too soon. Fight the temptation. You’ll know when it’s time to speak again when the eyes in the room leave the screen and return to you.


4. Supplement It

Generally speaking, you provide little value to your audience by reading a slide to them. Audience members have already read it for themselves. You provide value by helping them make sense of what they’ve just seen. You can do that by adding context, summarizing a key takeaway, or using the slide as a bouncing off point to make a larger point.

For example, let’s say you click to your next slide, which reads:

“Our new shipping plan will save $425,000 in fiscal year 2013.”

Instead of reading that to the audience, you might say:

“What are we going to do with this new windfall? We propose using it in three different ways. They are…”

Before your next speech, remember to use the 4S’s when showing each PowerPoint slide: Set it up, show it, stop talking, and supplement it.

My new book, 101 Ways to Open a Speech, is now available at Amazon. You can read more about the book here


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Comments (7)

  1. By Leigh Ann:

    Dude, you’re in my head. This is the second time you’ve done a post that corresponds with something I’m working on. (I’ve been hired to edit some PowerPoint slides and then write and record a script for a video version of them.)

    I so agree with the idea of not just reading the slides word-for-word. In addition to the reasons you listed, doing so can get you into monotone territory, and you’ll probably stand there staring at the screen the whole time rather than engage your audience.

    It can be scary to break away from the slides, but if your slides make sense to you and you write notes to remind yourself of what to cover, it can flow surprisingly easily.

  2. By Brad Phillips:

    Leigh Ann,

    So glad to hear I’m occupying some of your brain space! 🙂

    You’re right that it can be scary for speakers to break away from their slides, but too often I find that they’re using the slides for themselves (as memory triggers) instead of for the audience (as visual reinforcements).

    Good luck in convincing your client to do it the “4S” way!


  3. By Magdalene Li:

    Thanks very much for the post.

    In my organisation, people tend to write everything down on the slide and they just read aloud…

    I will share this with them…

  4. By Jacqueline Goldstein:

    Excellent advice!

  5. By Jeff:

    While some of this is long-known common sense (don’t read the slides) other pieces (set it up, hold your tongue while the info is absorbed) I’m ashamed to say I haven’t practiced. I wish I’d seen this a long time ago.

  6. By Ken Molay:

    To play devil’s advocate here, in most (not all) cases if your audience needs silent time to take in information on a slide you probably have poorly designed slides. One fast, obvious, “consume at a glance” visual per slide is your goal. Make more slides. Keep visuals flowing. That’s fine. But if your slide delivers information on its own, then why are you there as a presenter? Exceptions such as a table or graph are sometimes necessary, but even those can be built up in pieces, each quickly seen and understood before the next layer is added. Bad presentations consist of presenters supporting the slides. Good presentations consist of slides supporting the presenter.

  7. By Brad Phillips:

    Hi Ken,

    Thanks for you comment. We’re on the same page — I’ve written several posts that make your argument, although I’m a bit less absolutist about it. As you suggested, there are times when certain content requires at least a few moments of interpretation. One way of reducing the time it takes the audience to take in a slide is to tell them what they’re going to see and how to interpret it before clicking to it.

    But there’s another, more pragmatic, concession. Some (okay, many) of our clients work within old-school corporate cultures that have a specific expectation for internal presentations. A supervisor might be completely on board with our approach — but if her vice president insists on seeing information in a certain manner, she has to comply. In those cases, I work to reduce text instead of eliminate it and increase the number of meaningful visuals without creating a visuals-only presentation. I’ve found that such an iterative approach works better for clients in such environments and that they can slowly build on that approach over time.

    Then, of course, there are the clients who tell me they don’t have time to do a visual presentation. I encourage them to try to make time — but failing that, encourage them to at least make steps in the right direction for some of the slides, even if they don’t (can’t?) do it for the entire deck.

    For those reasons and others, the 4S approach often works far better than the existing alternative.


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