A few weeks ago, Raul Pacheco-Vega asked on Twitter whether presentation slides were a form of academic writing. My first thought was ‘sure, why not?’; I see little point in circumscribing the activity of academic writing to exclude any of the things that academics write. But my second thought was that conceiving of slide preparation as academic writing could easily contribute to the notion that slides are places for extensive text. This is not to say that slide writing couldn’t be a genre of academic writing, as Pat Thomson suggested in her reply to Raul, but rather that emphasizing writing on slides may lead us to over-emphasize the extent to which slides are meant to be read.
Of course, some slides are meant to be read; in some contexts, slides are a way of sharing content. Some people—especially in business environments—use slides as a kind of report, as a platform for conveying information that will need to stand alone. That use of slides will, needless to say, require a very different type of writing; this helpful post from Dave Paradi explores the difference between presentation slides and slides designed to stand alone. (Teaching slides, which often try to both stand alone and support a lecture, are another matter altogether.)
What interests me here, however, are those slides that are meant to support a formal talk. In my view, only once that talk has been written—ideally in a manner suitable to being spoken—ought the accompanying slides be designed. I’m not making a capital-D distinction between designing and writing, but rather making a practical point. Presentation software should not have the same relationship to a presentation as word processing software has to a written text. We often start writing a paper by opening our word processing program and beginning to type; unfortunately, people often start working on a presentation by opening up their slide software and beginning to type. The creation of slides in advance of the writing of a presentation has two hazards. First, the slides are being created before we have a fully worked out plan, which means that they may not represent the optimal arrangement of information. Second, these premature slides are almost always wordy because they are bearing the brunt of the initial rush of thinking.
In this scenario, the presenter is saddled from early on with slides that lack coherence and that have too many words. As the presenter then tries to shape the oral presentation, those slides can be a bad influence. Speakers often seem to be reacting to slides rather than using them as support for their remarks. And when the speaker is reacting to a slide, the audience will often struggle to decide how to allocate their attention. A speaker should always be in control of the audience’s attention, including their attention to the slides. When the slides are too wordy, the audience will often be tempted to read those slides, thus neglecting the words being delivered by the speaker. Once the audience’s attention is bifurcated in that way, it can be hard for the presentation to succeed. If, on the other hand, we write a presentation before we design the slides, we are more likely to create slides that enrich the presentation by providing synchronized visual support.
This reflection has taken me far from Raul’s original question and deep into one of my own preoccupations. Again, it is not that I have any interest in defining what is and is not academic writing. But I do think it’s valuable to frame presentation writing as something distinct from the process of slide design. If it suits your workflow or your philosophy of work to define both as falling under a broad #acwri umbrella, that’s great. The crucial issue for me is that we subdivide the activity of presentation preparation into the work of writing what we are going to say and the subsequent planning of what the audience will see on the screen.