Words are the enemy

Dec 03 2013 Published by under Careers, Life

On your slides that is.

I've been thinking about presentations a lot recently. Partly because I had some to give and partly because I know mine could be better. Much better. So I did some reading,* and thinking. And reading. Then wrote/prepared/crafted a brand new talk. It's debut seemed to go pretty well.

What have I learned? A lot that I should have already known, including keep your slides very, very simple. Or at least as simple as is reasonable. And, perhaps more importantly...

Words are not your friend.

Just the opposite.

The audience is there to listen to you, not read. The more words you have on your slides, the less attention they're paying to you.

So go delete some words.

Get to know your slides really, really well so YOU don't need the words.

Go back and delete more words.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

My latest presentation? Fewer words on the slides than slides themselves.**


* I started with Nancy Duarte's "Slide:ology" and progressed to Garr Reynolds' "Presentation Zen." The former makes a nice intro to the latter.

** Not counting the acknowledgements. That's not somewhere you necessarily want to skimp on words.

12 responses so far

  • pyrope says:

    I completely agree for seminars and conference presentations - words are only useful for underscoring a critical point.
    But, I've found that for classes the students want to go back and look through the slides to study. In that case, words are really your friend because they often didn't write down the point that you were trying to make, or misunderstood the point. These days I've been adding summary text back to my slides for class.

  • I suggest eliminating words altogether. It is a visual medium, so use it for visuals. The same is true in teaching. When I realised that students were using my bullet lists as a substitute for taking their own notes, and I was using them as a crutch to avoid learning my material better, I ditched them completely. The were howls of opposition, but boy, the kids sure paid a lot more attention after they knew that downloading my presentation from Blackboard wouldn't help them that much.

  • qaz says:

    Actually, the problem isn't words, but rather misuse of words. Good, well-designed slides allow your listeners to either read or listen. This is particulaly important for foreign audinces. A lot of non-english speaking audiences can read much better than they can interpret aounds.

    What i've found is a one to two sentence description of the main point of the slide can both keep non-English speaking audience members up to speed, and can also let sleepy American audiences able to catch up.

    The key, of course, is to put the attention in your slides on the figures, and never never never read your alides aloud. The thing to make sure is that your words are for your audience, not for you.

    Classes are a different story. For classes, the slides I hand out are incomplete. This makes the students take notes.

    • odyssey says:

      allow your listeners to either read or listen

      That's the thing. It's one or the other, not both. And there are many sentences that can be replaced by a well-designed graphic, which would be much more understandable for non-English speakers in the audience.

      • qaz says:

        If you actually interview your non-english audience, you'll find that's not true. They actually read AND listen. Particularly if you have a very short couple of sentences that set the stage. Don't try to tell everything, just enough to set the stage for the slide.

        • odyssey says:

          Not quite what I meant. Everyone, non-English speaker or otherwise, when presented with text on the screen, will read it.

          Richard Mayer at UCSB has performed studies that show overall comprehension goes down when material is presented verbally and with text at the same time in a multimedia presentation. Comprehension tends to be maximized when material is presented verbally with accompanying supportive graphics.

          Caveat: I've not read those studies myself. Just seen them cited in writings about presentations.

  • whizbang says:

    Duarte's other book, Resonate, is also a good guide and worth the price. I have drastically eliminated the words on slides since reading those works.

    In addition to slides, I provide a traditional text handout about my material to the students. Lucky for me, fluid, electrolyte and acid-base metabolism does not change that much year-to-year.

  • My practice is to have a short declarative title on each slide that summarizes the point of whatever graphical shitte is on the slide. This way if someone loses the train of a slide, they can at least just read the title and get enough to keep following along the talk as a whole. The worst thing is to have someone lose concentration for a single slide and then be in a position where the entire rest of the talk becomes incomprehensible.

    Incidentally, this is why it is important to repeat shit a lot during a talk. If you as the speaker think you are being painfully repetitive, then you are probably doing a decent job.

  • bob says:

    I totally agree with you and my presentations usually have no words beyond labels and a declarative title as PP suggests. That's the kind of presentation I like to see and I usually get good feedback on the clarity of my talks.

    But, a couple of people have recently told me I don't use enough text and should include more. I pointed out that the things they wanted me to include on the slide were actually usually in the title. They said most people have crappy titles on their slides so they no longer notice them.

    I've considered just putting the title on the bottom of the slide instead of the top. I think it might jump out more for some people.