Separating Driver and Presenter

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I would usually argue that the speaker should always be in full control of his or her slides. They know the presentation best and, amongst other things, it will give them a chance to go back in case they forgot something or have to revisit an earlier point.

So I was surprised to learn about the recommendation to have a separate "driver" for the slides, i.e. someone whose only job it is to advance the slides in sync with the actual speaker. How and when does that make sense?

The context for this recommendation are startup pitches. The idea is to free the speaker of yet another task (advancing the slides at the right moment) so that they can fully concentrate on bringing across their message in the available - usually very short! - time.

When you think about it, this approach does make a lot of sense on several levels. Obviously, not having to remember to press a button at the right moment, not having to worry that you'd advance two slides instead of one, not having to care about possible technical problems, etc. really helps.

You have to keep in mind that startup pitches, which are usually somewhere around 3 to 6 minutes long, are closer to performance art than your usual presentation. Not only is the goal of the pitch to sell your product or service; you are actually expected to entertain your audience and make them care about what you do and why you do it. That alone is a big challenge for young entrepreneurs, not all of whom are born presenters.

When every little detail matters and the future of your business depends on it, it's a good idea to re-think the standard approach to a presentation and check where there is potential for optimisation and for reducing the risk of problems.

So what if there were problems with the slides? What if the driver can't keep up or the projector fails? The presenter should ignore these problems and simply go on. A good pitch has to be able to stand on its own, even without slides. Here we have a case where the slides are just a backdrop. They are there to support the message, but the pitch should be able to stand on its own.

Coincidentally, a few days after I heard this recommendation to separate driver and presenter, Apple held one of its product announcement events. And guess what? All the third-party products shown at that event were using this approach. These were very similar to pitches; Apple had asked developers who had been given advance access to the new products to show off what they had done. All of these had one person doing the talking and another either driving the slides or showing a demo of their product in parallel. Contrast that with the fact that even an experienced presenter like Eddie Cue struggled with the remote on 2 or 3 occasions, and it all makes sense.

For your usual presentation, my original point still stands: The presenter needs to have full control over the slides. But then you usually have enough time to correct mistakes. When you are in a situation where every word counts and the future of your company is at stake, it's better to relinquish control of the slides to have that off of your mind and concentrate on telling your story.

(Photo Credits: Teen Driver preparing to drive by State Farm, CC BY, from Flickr.
Still photo from the Apple "Hey Siri!" event.)

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Creative Commons Licence "Separating Driver and Presenter" by Dirk Haun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.