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Avoid This One Thing in Your Presentations

Sometimes less is more

Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

It’s a really simple concept but difficult to execute in practice. You start creating your slide deck and find yourself doing it again. The temptation is always there, but you have to avoid it.

Use. Fewer. Words.

Now, you can use plenty of words in your talk. In fact, you want the audience hanging on your every word. However, we want to avoid lots of words on the screen in front of your audience. A general rule to follow is no more than 30 words on any individual slide. This may seem like a difficult constraint at first, but it will soon become second nature.

You may be asking the value of following this seemingly arbitrary rule. A common inclination is to get all the information you want to convey up there on the screen. What better way to communicate, right? Its all there for the audience to see. That is the temptation. Don’t fall into the trap though.

Why is that? Consider that people read much faster than you can talk. The audience will finish reading your slide content while you are still talking. What happens then? Are they going to continue to listen to you tell them something that they just read? You risk losing their interest, and it only takes a moment to get lost in social media. We’ve all done it.

Presentations vs. documents

Large volumes of words are much better suited for documents. Whitepapers, handouts, or other documentation provides a great mechanism for providing that level of information. You still need to convince people to read those documents. Before that though, you want your audience to walk away from your presentation with the key messages. Instill in their minds the most important things you want to say.

Think about talks you have attended in the past. Do you remember every detail still? Probably not. You probably have a few key impressions or takeaways that stood out to you. So are lots of details bad? Of course not. Few arguments are accepted without some level of supporting detail. “Organize and prioritize” is your objective when deciding what content goes in the slide vs. supplemental material.

You want to craft and deliver a compelling talk that leads your audience to the call to action. That may be making a decision on the spot, or it may be moving in that direction, following up with a discussion, or reading the additional materials. If the audience absorbed the key takeaway, then you have positioned yourself for success.

Presentation slides are a visual medium

Ideally, you want content on the screen that contains a compelling visual and a short note that highlights two things to the audience:

  1. Why they should care about this topic or visual
  2. Why they should invest more time and energy to listen to what you have to say about it.

Then you fill in the details during your discussion of the slide. You complete the story in their minds. This approach will maintain audience attention and keep them interested to hear what is next.

See my article below for a detailed explanation of crafting compelling presentations using this idea.

The word count does vary slightly based on the type of presentation. In a persuasive talk about decision making or a proposal, I would almost always stick to the 30 word limit. For informational or training talks, you may occasionally go above that. Keep in mind in these cases, you probably also are handing out training materials that go with the class, so you likely have a way to communicate detailed information if need be.

Before you finalize your slide deck, put on that editor’s cap and go through those slides one more time. Construct an overall narrative and use visuals to help tell your story in a compelling fashion. Try it once and see if you notice a difference. Make the talks uniquely yours and I look forward to seeing them!

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Darren Broemmer

Darren Broemmer

I write weekly on technology and science topics. I am a technologist, published author, and Ruby Rogues podcast panelist.

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