Presentations: Why Less Is More

Have you ever found your attention drifting off during a speech? If you’re courting the interest of customers or investors, you need a presentation that leaves them buzzing with curiosity, not dozing in their seats. When it comes to designing a standout slide deck, the old adage “less is more” still stands. Here, we discuss some tips for keeping your slide decks streamlined, efficient, and memorable. 

BE CONCISE

Just as there is only so much you can eat before feeling sick, there is only so much information your audience can consume before becoming overwhelmed. In fact, several studies on student attention in lecture halls suggest that listeners’ optimal attention comes around 10 to 18 minutes into a lecture—that’s why the maximum length for a TEDTalk is only 18 minutes! If your presentation has too many slides, it risks dragging on for much longer than the typical adult attention span can handle. 

Stick to 10-15 slides that highlight key points and bite-sized takeaways. How do you decide what to include in your handful of slides? Start by thinking of a presentation as the table of contents in a book, not the whole book. Your goal is to pique the audience’s interest in learning more without giving away the entire plot.

TELL A STORY

You could probably retell a hilarious anecdote or two about your high school friends more easily than you can recall information from your final exams—even if you spent weeks studying for the latter. This is because stories and narratives are far more memorable for the human brain than facts and statistics that lack context or reliability.

One cognitive psychology study found that after two days, audience members for a 20-slide presentation only remembered an average of 4 slides. Dr. Carmen Simon, the cognitive neuroscientist who conducted the study, recommends instead that speakers draw clear links between Point A and Point B. That is, speakers are more successful when they create a big-picture narrative or story arc that links their content to actions they want the audience to take in the future.

KEEP TEXT MINIMAL

A cluttered presentation slide is like a messy room: no one wants to spend too much time there. Although it’s tempting to try to squeeze every last detail onto a slide, the more cluttered your slides are, the less effectively your audience will be able to absorb them—or even read them.  

The average adult reading speed is slower than many people think, at only 238 words per minute. If your slide is packed with text, listeners won’t really be paying attention to you or the words coming out of your mouth; they’ll be scrambling to read (and, often, take notes on) the words on the screen behind you. If the font is tiny, even worse. 

Break up text on your slides into concise, memorable points, and write in a larger font so you won’t cram in more lines. Ask yourself beforehand: what information do you consider “need to know” versus “nice to have”? Remember, your slides shouldn’t be a word-for-word script of what you’re going to say, but a visual aid you can elaborate on as you speak. 

CREATE VISUAL ANCHORS

Did you know the brain processes visuals 60,000 times faster than text? Images are far more effective for helping people retain information than text. That doesn’t mean all of your slides should be full of pictures (remember: less is more!), but adding visual variety to your slide deck can make your points easier to recall with visual anchors. 

Dr. Simon, the memory expert cited above, suggests that listeners respond best to a mix of anticipation and surprise. She recommends, for example, alternating between slides that are visually intense and slides that are simpler, not just following the same pattern on each slide.

INTERPRET YOUR DATA

Data is critical to backing up ideas, but your audience may struggle to read and interpret stats or charts while you’re presenting. Visualizing data in an engaging graphic is great, but don’t stop there. Carefully explain why you chose to represent the data this way, what the data says, and why it’s relevant to your listeners. Be prepared to clearly spell out what insights you’ve extrapolated. You can always provide more in-depth analysis outside the presentation in the form of an email, landing page, or print handout. 

THE BOTTOM LINE

If you have a stellar idea, you don’t need to go overboard on the bells and whistles to showcase it. There’s a reason “too much text” and “too many graphics or animations” have landed more than one PowerPoint among the world’s worst! If your goal is clarity and memorability, start by trimming down your slide deck. Once you’ve identified your main takeaways, work on designing slides that are visually appealing, concise, and uncluttered. You’ll be well on your way to engaging any audience.

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