Presenting visually without Slides

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I often test my presentations in front of a friendly audience. If you don't have anyone who would be interested in your talk, I can recommend attending a Barcamp. In fact, my "career" as a proponent of better presentations started with a short presentation at Barcamp Stuttgart in 2011. I barely had material for 10 minutes, but the positive feedback and constructive discussion afterwards confirmed that I was on to something.

So after I stressed the importance of using visuals in slides - how and why they work - in a session last year, I came back to Barcamp Stuttgart this year with the question if you can make use of the positive effects of visuals even if you're not using slides in your talk.

In other words: Can you present visually without slides?

And the answer is: Yes, you can. But you will have to show something. Here are 3 ways to do that:

Replacement Slides

You could call this cheating - you are not using slides, but you are using something instead of the slides. For example, you could use signs, a bit like Bob Dylan in the well-known video for his song, Subterranean Homesick Blues. I would recommend this approach especially for information that works best when being expressed as text, such as the name of your company or product, or the URL of your website. People will remember this information better when they see it written down. This is especially useful if the name of your product or company uses unusual words or creative spelling; having to spell out the name of your company during the presentation is just awkward.

You can also use replacement slides for some simple - and I do mean simple - graphics. Keep in mind that your sign will be much smaller than a projected slide. So you have to make sure that people in the back of the room can still make out the content.

Instead of signs, I've seen people use tshirts with their "slides" printed on them. Again, the information you present must be simple and clearly visible. Also keep in mind that while you can hold up a sign so that people in the back can see it, this is not possible when you're wearing your slide.

Another obvious example that I missed (thanks to the person who brought it up in my Barcamp session): Flipcharts. They can be used just like signs or tshirts, but they have an added bonus: You can draw on them while you talk and therefore show how something develops. When you explain a process, for example, and draw it at the same time, it will help your audience follow along and understand the connections.

A famous example would be Simon Sinek, who's a master of flipchart use in talks. If you haven't seen it yet, watch his famous TEDx talk, How great leaders inspire action. Also note how he makes use of repetition to really "hammer" his key message into the mind of the audience.

Show the Product

If you are talking about a product then show it, if at all possible. It might be hard to do if your product is a website or a power plant. But as long as it fits on the stage, consider bringing it with you. Even if it's small - if you can hold it up and show it, it will give the audience a sense of its size and make it more tangible for them.

My favourite example of introducing a product and at the same time giving the audience an idea of its size (or in this case: smallness) is Steve Jobs' 2005 introduction of the iPad nano (skip to 1:25 for the good bit). He took the famous iPod slogan "1000 songs in your pocket" to a whole new level by showing that 1000 songs would even fit in that tiny second Jeans pocket, the one we've all wondered about: What's this pocket for?

If your product is too big for the stage, consider using a mock-up. Websites are tricky, admittedly, and it depends on what it actually does. Maybe there's a real-world equivalent that you can show instead?

Making the Abstract visible

The real challenge comes with cases where you would normally show a graph on a slide. If you think hard about the core point of the fact that you want to present, you will be able to simplify it and strip it down to its essential part. You can then think about how you could present that piece of information.

I can give you two such examples from TEDxStuttgart in November 2013:

Bert Helbig Bert Helbig talked about communication. He was actually using slides for his talk, but for this one message, he used a prop: a piece of red ribbon. The ribbon represents the entirety of the message you want to transport. More than half of that message, however, is in how you act and look in front of your audience. Another 30 percent is in the way you sound. And only 7 percent is the actual content - that what we usually consider the most important part of of a presentation.

Seeing the tiny little bit that represents the actual content (the 7 percent) dangling from the end of the ribbon was very impressive. What we think is the most important part is almost irrelevant in comparison to the rest of the presentation.

Another example from the same event: Tran Nguyen is a medical student. She talked about bacteria which, while harmless themselves, can have severe consequences for our health when they are combined with certain conditions, such as bad hygiene in a hospital. As it turns out, about 30% of the population carry this - harmless - bacteria in their noses.

TEDxStuttgart, November 26, 2013 Before explaining what it was all about, Tran asked every third person in the room to stand up. Reluctantly, the audience complied. When she then explained that those standing represent the portion of the population carrying this bacteria, a wave of surprise and mild shock ran across the room (and Tran had to reassure them that the bacteria are harmless as they are). Quite obviously, the audience will not forget this information again easily.


When presenting without slides, a lot of the things that make up a good presentation are the same, e.g. having a clear message. Other things become even more important, e.g. storytelling and repetition. The lack of slides, however, shouldn't stop you from thinking about visualising your core points. If you think hard about these, you'll find a way.

(Photos: Screenshots from the Bob Dylan and Steve Jobs videos, respectively.
TEDxStuttgart photos by Michael M. Roth, MicialMedia)

If you'd like me to talk or write about this topic, you can hire me to do so.
Please email me for details.
Creative Commons Licence "Presenting visually without Slides" by Dirk Haun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.