Less is More: Strip Down Your Slides

POSTED: Oct. 12, 2016

Everyone has heard the quote “Less is more” - but few know who said it or what it refers to.

Regardless, it perfectly applies to PowerPoint. Most presenters, though, follow the opposite school of thought that “more is more” and stuff their slides with too many words and pictures. The result is summed up in another quote by author, entrepreneur and presentation expert Seth Godin who said, “Almost every PowerPoint sucks rotten eggs.”

In a survey regarding what viewers  disliked most about PowerPoint presentations, they identified the following problems:

74% - Presenters reading slides to them

52% - Full sentences instead of bullet points

48% - Text too small to read

The fundamental issue is that presenters try to put too much on their slides. I think there are two groups of PowerPoint abusers who think that more words and pictures are better: intentional and unintentional abusers.

Intentional PowerPoint Abusers

People intentionally overstuff their slides because it takes pressure off of them as presenters. For most people, the mere act of speaking in front of a group makes them go weak in the knees. In my “Be A Better Business Speaker” course, I ask someone in the audience to describe their job. They calmly begin to rattle off some of their responsibilities. Then I ask them to stand up and continue. In almost every case, they are suddenly stricken by fear. Being a presenter is frightening.

If all the information is on the slide, then presenters don’t have to worry about doing as much work and are less likely to embarrass themselves. The audience can just read the slides to get the necessary information. This, however, is a tedious process for the audience and raises the question: if all the information is on the slides, why not just distribute it as a handout? That’s a much more efficient – and much less painful – communication method.

Unintentional PowerPoint Abusers

Most overstuffed slides, though, are the product of the unintentional abusers. They misunderstand their role as a presenter and the needs of their audience.

The presenters role is to be the source of most of the information. The slides play a supporting role rather than being the star. The slides should include just the key points, never full sentences. Short, concise bullet points provide visual reinforcement for the presenter’s words. They also serve as a visual outline that guides the presenter and audience through the content, and increase the likelihood that the audience will recall the information.

A widely used rule of thumb is the 6 X 6 rule; slides should have no more than six bullets and each bullet should have no more than six words. That is probably too limiting, but provides good perspective on how much text should appear on a slide.

Regarding the needs of the audience, presenters seem to assume their viewers have the visual acuity of a hawk, able to spot a mouse at 100 yards. When the font size on your slides gets below 14 point, you aren’t creating a presentation, you’re creating an eye chart.

I’ve also seen many slides that look like Christmas trees, chock full of pictures and graphs that the presenter believes help provide knowledge. They usually don’t. What they provide is clutter and eye strain. It is almost always better to use one or two carefully chosen pictures or graphs.

Not sure if you are guilty of overstuffing your slides? If you’ve ever had to tell your audience, “I know you can’t see this ...“, then you are a PowerPoint abuser.

But They Need to See This!

The most-common defense of slide overstuffers is that “the audience needs to see this!” Often they don’t, but let’s assume they do. Putting it on the slide doesn’t ensure they can see it if the text and graphics are too tiny. You have two solutions for this dilemma.

If it is critical that they see the information during the presentation, then use more slides. Spread the content across as many slides as is needed to ensure that each is clearly readable. One of the most-common battles I fight with clients is slide count. They fret that they will have too many slides in their presentations if they start dividing too-dense slides across multiple slides. Slide count is a meaningless metric. I can create one slide that, with animations, looks like 10. If it’s truly important for your audience to see all that information, then use all the slides you need to ensure they are readable.

Solution two is a handout or take-away document - but not just a printout of your overstuffed slides. If you have a report you need to reference, a checklist you need to review, a document you need to discuss, don’t just scrunch it down to fit on the slide and expect your audience to squint their way through it. Instead, create a separate document that you distribute during your presentation as a reference. On your slides, pull out each key point from the document and make a slide of it.

Invest in Better Slides 

It’s easy to create a deck of slides bulging with words and images. Refining those slides, reducing them to the key points or pictures, and possibly preparing supporting handouts does take some thought and time. Mark Twain famously said, “I am sorry for the long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

If you’re concerned about effectively communicating with your audience, it’s worth taking the time to reduce your word-filled slides to concise bullet points that keep the focus on you to ensure more effective communication.

(If you’ve been wondering, “Less is more” comes from an 1855 poem, but is typically associated with architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe regarding his minimalist design.)