Sense and sensibility of systematically soliciting speaker slides

There is a fateful ritual to keynote invitations. The first message reads (I am paraphrasing): “Respected peerless luminary of this millennium and the next, Will your excellency ever forgive me for the audacity of asking if you would deign to leave for a short interlude the blessed abodes that habitually beget your immortal insights, and (how could I summon the gall of even forming the thought!) consider the remote possibility of honoring our humble gathering with your august presence, condescending upon that historic occasion to partake of some minute fragment of your infinite wisdom with our undeserving attendees?”. The subsequent email, a few months later, is more like: “Hi Bertrand, looks like we don’t have your slides yet, the conference is coming up and the deadline was last week, did I miss anything?”. Next: “Hey you! Do you ever read your email? Don’t try the old line about your spam filter. Where are you slides? Our sponsors are threatening to withdraw funding. People are cancelling their registrations. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is tweeting about the conference. Send the damn stuff!” Last: “Scum, listen. We have athletic friends and they know where you live. The time for sending your PDF is NOW.

Actually I don’t have my slides. I will have them all right for the talk. Maybe five minutes before, if you insist nicely. The talk will be bad or it will be less bad, but the slides are meant for the talk, they are not the talk. Even if I were not an inveterate procrastinator, rising at five on the day of the presentation to write them, I would still like to attend the talks before mine and refer to them. And why in the world would I let you circulate my slides in advance and steal my thunder?

This whole business of slides has become bizarre, a confusion of means and ends. Cicero did not use slides. Lincoln did not have PowerPoint. Their words still struck.

We have become hooked to slides. We pretend that they help the talk but that is a blatant lie except for the maybe 0.1% of speakers who use slides wisely. Slides are not for the benefit of the audience (are you joking? What slide user cares about the audience? Hahaha) but for the sole, exclusive and utterly selfish benefit of the speaker.

Good old notes (“cheat sheets”) would be more effective. Or writing down your speech and reading it from the lectern as historians still do (so we are told) at their conferences.

If we use slides at all, we should reserve them for illustration: to display a photograph, a graph, a table. The way politicians and police chiefs do when they bring a big chart to support their point a press conference.

I am like everyone else and still use slides as crutches. It’s so tempting. But don’t ask me to provide them in advance.

What about afterwards? It depends. Writing down the talk in the form of a paper is better. If you do not have the time, the text of the slides can serve as a simplified record. But only if the speaker wants to spread them that way. There is no rule  that slides should be published. If you see your slides as an ephemeral artifact to support an evanescent event (a speech at a conference) and wish them to remain only in the memory of those inspired enough to have attended it, that is your privilege.

Soliciting speaker slides: somewhat sane, slightly strange, or simply silly?

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