The tyranny of text

Excessive text is the worst and most common mistake I see in engineering presentations. I think engineers tend toward this verbosity from a desire for completeness and accuracy. It is also simply a hereditary trait passed down through the generations of scientific speakers. In this way, wordy starts to equate with professional.

Wrong!

If you want to improve your presentation game, use fewer words on your PowerPoint slides. DFMA (Design for Manufacturing and Assembly) holds that the perfect design includes no parts… the easiest to manufacture and assemble. Obviously that’s not possible, but you will make more money and better products if you keep this goal in mind throughout the development process. I would ask you to keep the same goal in mind while constructing your next presentation.

When you fill a slide with more than 15 words, you defeat the purpose of live presentation. It would be more productive to cancel the meeting and simply email your PowerPoint for attendees to read when convenient. A presentation that can be consumed without the presenter doesn’t need a presenter. In fact, that’s called a Word document.

Text heavy slides are also terribly distracting for your audience. I get very worried when my audience isn’t looking directly at me during a presentation. When that happens, I know I’m doing something wrong. I’ve lost them.

They aren’t engaged.
They are bored.
I’m boring.

Unfortunately, that instinct somehow escapes 95% off all presenters I’m forced to endure. They toss up a text laden slide- blind to the fact that all eyes are scanning the screen while they blather on. The human brain doesn’t multitask, but it tries. You actually achieve less content consumption as your viewers’ brains struggle to switch back and forth between auditory and textual information intake.

I once shared this observation with a brilliant engineer who totally bought into it, but believed that his work environment required such dense text for completeness. If you truly believe that, I suggest creating a separate Word document handout to complement your presentation. Let them read the deep details on their own time.

I challenge you to create your next presentation with no more than 3 words per page. Use actual images of your prototypes or test setups. Use any kind of image (no clipart!) that emphasizes the point you are trying to make. Use infographics. Use highly summarized graphs and plots. Your audience will quickly absorb the slide and their eyes will immediately move back to yours. Hint, that’s how you’ll know they are engaged… and awake.

By the way, this is an instant cure for my second biggest pet presentation peeve: Presenters who face the screen and read their slides word for word!

To be fair, most of my slides have more than 3 words- but never more than 15. I’m limiting you to 3 in this exercise as a harsh detox regime for your bad habit. If you find that you are stuck, I’m here to help. Send me a copy of your slide at jeff@jeffwaters.com and I’ll rework it for you. The only catch? I’ll require your permission to post the before and after here on this blog. We will of course obscure any proprietary information.

Will you accept this challenge?
That guy head-bobbing in the last row certainly hopes so…

Image by: Andrew Mason

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  • http://twitter.com/jchawner John Chawner

    I couldn’t agree more. 

    This is why I question the value of something like Slideshare. If you put good presentation slides on Slideshare, no one would know what the hell they’re about. Your recommendations are very Tufte-esque. Instead of replacing the PPT with a DOC, he advocates handing out a DOC before the presentation and then using PPT as you describe.

    • http://lifeupfront.com/ Jeff Waters

      Thanks John. Tufte is new to me- but a quick search of Amazon says he’s right up my alley. Which of his titles would you recommend if I wanted to pick just one?

  • David Reid

    Jeff – of course your blog page contained hundred of words and only 1 image.  Surely hoist with your own petard?

    • http://lifeupfront.com/ Jeff Waters

      Well, I realize you are just being a cheeky wanker. Blogs are not live presentations… I love the written word….just not in conference rooms.

  • Mike Shipulski

    Jeff, right on! Less is more. (6 words)

    Mike