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Most people have gone through their share of Powerpoint presentations where someone is trying to communicate a set of information. Most people also seem to hate these, and get distracted or bored. I know I do.

My theory for such feeling of distaste for this sort of communication is that:

  • It is easy to lose focus if the slides stay the same and the person just talks.
  • As a counter example of this, short explanatory videos on Youtube (for instance) are the most popular, and often use lots of cuts and image updates to force the viewer to refocus - there is rarely text on screen, and when it does it is impactful and super short.

Now at work, it is customary to briefly update heads (who are usually there out of obligation) with short presentations. I'm advised to make equally short slides (such as 5 for 10 mins), with paragraphs of text, however I feel the previous points apply. I do not wish to do so but I cannot argue against it.

In college, I liked to keep as little text as possible (because I want people to listen, not read), changing slides to simply illustrate what I was communicating. A 10 minute presentation could easily have up to 20 slides, where I'd spend less than 30 seconds in each. While my professors seemed to enjoy them, I recognize college is something else.

So, are there any theories that reinforces that one should make slow, even text heavy slides to help communicate information effectively during a presentation? Conclusions from experience welcome.

  • I'm looking forward to reading the answers on this one :) One quick question, do you typically send these slides out to the heads (or other people) afterwards? – Em C May 10 at 15:11
  • @EmC At work I don't, the material is merely to assist my presentation. I haven't done speedy slides at work. I handed my speedy slides in college, however. – lucasgcb May 10 at 15:18
  • "So, are there any theories that reinforces that one should make slow, even text heavy slides to help communicate information effectively during a presentation?" Is that your only question? Or are you also looking for findings/experiences for the other side? – dhein May 13 at 6:21
  • @dhein My question aims to find either some supporting/debunking citation, or a clear conclusion from experience that addresses those points in particular. I'll edit this into the question. – lucasgcb May 13 at 7:13
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Short answer

No, short slides with bullet points are better.

Long answer

There's a pretty good amount of literature out there on this topic, so I'll collect the main points here. When you are giving a presentation, there are two mediums of communication: you and the slides you are presenting from. Your audience can only pay attention to one at a time, which means that if they are busy reading paragraphs from your slides, they aren't focused on what you are saying.

Here's the problem: Your audience can only do one thing at a time well. They can either listen to you talk, or they can read the slides you're projecting. Not both. Harvard Business Review's Nancy Duarte judges PowerPoint presentations by applying the "glance test," saying that it should take no more than three seconds for viewers to intellectually process and comprehend a slide. Any longer and they're going to be reading your slides, not hearing your message.

As Nancy Duarte of the Harvard Business Review points out, your slides need to be short and concise so that the audience can process them and then focus on what you are saying.

According to Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville's professor of psychology, Dr. Lynn Bartels, surveys have shown that one of the largest complaints with presentations is too much text on the slides.

One informal survey called the Latest Annoying PowerPoint Survey showed that people complain most about three things in PowerPoint presentations:

  • Presenters who read from their slides
  • Text that is too small to read
  • Using full sentences instead of bullet points

Dr. Bartels advocates for a 7x7 rule where-in each slide contains no more than 7 lines of text and each line contains no more than 7 words.

  • 2
    Plus a presentation is generally focused around the presenter, with the slides as support/illustration and not the other way around. If so much text is necessary, the right format is probably a written report. – Upper_Case-Stop Harming Monica May 10 at 15:49
  • Agreed. 1 bullet = 1 punch-line. Your slide has to sell the main idea. It's like marketing. People remember the product because of one thing, be it a word, a tune, a sentence, an image. – OldPadawan May 10 at 16:57
  • Very nice answer, thanks for the citations. Any comments on the pace/duration of the slides? Would breaking down long slides into several short ones (size & time allocation) be sensible, or is the total number of slides what matters? – lucasgcb May 10 at 18:06
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    @lucasgcb I didn't find much information that talked about how many slides you should or shouldn't have. What's more important is that the content of each slide is easy for the audience to digest without distracting from the main purpose of the presentation, which is the information that you are giving. – Rainbacon May 10 at 18:12
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1. Keep it short

Slides loaded with text are counterproductive: they show that either you haven't understood the core point of your own work, or that you feel it to be of little use that it needs a lots of justification.

2. Keep it shorter

I was once told that "the audience already knows that you can read". Do not place in the slide text that you are going to read out loud. Rainbacon already pointed this out. I'll add that it detracts from the opinion that the audience will have of you: reading text out loud make you sound insecure, unprepared, or, perhaps worse, make them feel that you are trying to lecture them.

3. Facts

A slide is basically an image. Use it to display information that would require a very long verbal description. For instance: facts, maps, numbers, a graph, a picture of your product, a comparison of two images, a very short video of your result, etc... Use the slide to tell salient facts to your audience; use your voice to guide them to the conclusions you want them to draw.

4. Afterall, if you could just write down a paragraph instead of giving a talk...

...then you'd be better off sending an email and let them read it when they want, at their leisurely pace.

This advice comes from personal experience of two decades of presentations for academic, corporate and governmental audiences.

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    I thoroughly agree with your points in the answer! However my question aims to find either some supporting/debunking citation, or a clear conclusion from experience that addresses those points in particular. What kind of presentations have you made? – lucasgcb May 12 at 11:21
  • @lucasgcb two decades of presentations for academic, corporate and governmental audiences. – ooOOooK May 12 at 16:55
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It depends on what you want to communicate to your audience.

If you want to communicate "I hate my audience and have no ability to speak publicly", then a wall of text is the way to do a presentation.

On the other hand, if you want to be seen as engaging and interesting, the shorter and quicker slides are the way to go. I've spoken at conferences and also at schools and can tell you based on my experience that walls of text, no matter how fact-filled, are boring. I can read the wall of text faster than you can speak. So, if you give me a wall of text and read it to me, I'm going to finish before you do and I'll be stuck waiting for you. Now go through every slide with that going on. What's my overall impression going to be?

Really good presentations do a couple of things. They tell a story. They use the presentation to illustrate the story. They use the presentation to display the main point. A good presentation leaves the audience wondering what the picture illustrates and then answers that question. Walls of text do none of that. If there's a critical piece of information, display that and nothing else.

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