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Guest blog: Fast presentation fix #2: Simplify—think less text, more TED

Posted by Taylor Rogers on July 28, 2014

0717-Debra Jasper
By Debra Jasper

We’ve all seen it—speakers racing through their densely packed presentations because they only have 10 minutes left and 43 points left to make.

It’s one of the biggest and most common presentation mistakes in business today: the data dump. And it happens everywhere—from sales meetings to the conference stage. For today's hyper-distracted audiences, the trick to giving great presentations isn’t sharing everything you know. It’s figuring out how to share only what matters most.

Fast Fix #2, the second in my series of blog posts on the Five Fixes for Your Presentations, is the easiest to understand and yet the hardest to do: Reduce the text.

Getting down to only what’s most essential to share takes time, discipline and not a small amount of courage. You’ll need a lot more slides, a lot more TED-talk style visuals, and a lot more confidence. After all, if everything isn’t written out, you actually have to know your stuff.

But using less text in a presentation has huge advantages. One of the biggest is that it keeps your audience curious and tuned in—waiting to find out what you’re going to say next.

Forget the 6-6 Rule

In the old days (even sometimes now), business schools taught presenters to use six bullet points per slide and six words per bullet point. All that text makes it easy for you as a speaker, because you can (and unfortunately some of you do) read the slides almost verbatim. 

But you’re the only one who benefits from this approach. The moment you put text on the screen, your audience can’t help but start reading it. And we can read a whole lot faster than you can talk. So we start reading ahead and you’re standing in the front of the room sounding a lot like Charlie Brown’s teacher. Not good.

If you’re giving a presentation about your business, you know a lot about your topic. And it’s tempting to show off your expertise. But you should think of your presentation slides not as speaker notes, but Post-it Notes. The next time you put together a presentation (or dust off an old one), try the highlight, circle, strike test. On each slide:

    • Highlight what’s most important.
    • Circle any jargon, three-syllable words or acronyms.
    • Draw a line through any language that isn’t absolutely critical to making your key points.

Then go back through each slide and substitute short words for long ones, spell out acronyms (they’re hard to read) and delete all words or sentences not directly related to your main point.

Your goal: Get down to two to three words per slide—or at most, one or two short sentences.

The Three-Second Rule

You may be thinking:  “Two or three words per slide. You’ve got to be kidding me. I’ve got to educate people on a lot of important material.” But even if your talk covers the fiduciary duties of a board or the latest in risk mitigation, to inform people you must also engage and entertain them.  

That’s tough to do with a presentation packed full of citations, web links and so much text you can’t even read it from the back of the room.  (You don’t ever want to be the speaker saying: “I know you can’t see this, but…”)

Think of the text in your presentations as prompts—not a script; because the act of narrating your slides while your audience is reading them can cause them to feel cognitive dissonance. In other words, seriously frustrated. When people describe a presentation as painful, they sometimes mean it literally.

Instead of packing all of that information into your presentation deck, put it into a handout and give it out after the talk. Sharing materials in advance kills the curiosity—and the fun. (There’s a reason people don’t want you to give away the ending of a movie).

If you’re not sure if a slide has too much text, apply the three-second rule. If your audience can’t understand in three seconds the content on a particular slide, redesign it.

Remember: Slides are free!

Fast Fix #1 focused on how to think like a journalist when structuring your presentations. Next up: Fast Fix #3: Say dog, see dog.

Debra Jasper, Ph.D., is an international keynote speaker and co-founder of Mindset Digital, an online training company that offers certifications in LinkedIn, Twitter, mobile marketing and other digital media—and also transforms old-school corporate training into highly visual, engaging courses you can take on your phone. Learn more at www.MindsetDigital.com

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