01 March 2006

Presentations: Prose on slides = death.

My mixed business and academic schedule exposes me to lots and lots of presentations, in all formats. Last week I was in the audience for an excellent, passionate, low-tech presentation from Bill Germano. Every week I hear graduate students delivering papers or leading discussions in seminars. Most weeks I sit through at least a couple of larger or smaller meetings at my office.

Let me emphasize "sit through" in that last sentence. Many of these work presentations are not nearly as good as they could be, which is another way of saying that they're much worse than they should be.

Folks, let me convey something very, very clearly for anyone who uses PowerPoint slides to convey anything:

Do not use prose on your PowerPoint slides.

The longest stretch of prose you could safely use on a PowerPoint slide is one sentence--and not a long sentence. You can put in pictures. You can put in easy-to-read diagrams. You can leave in blank slides for effect. You can put one or two words on a slide, or just a symbol, to reinforce your points. But you must not ladle in sentences of prose onto a single slide. Seriously.

Yesterday I sat through a group presentation that was predictably uneven, simply because it was given by a group of presenters. All of them were basically comfortable working with the technology. Some of them had better slides. Some of them had better physical and vocal carriage. That's to be expected.

But some of the slides we saw were simply pointless. The presenters missed easy opportunities to give us poor saps in the audience pictures that would have reinforced their words. Instead, they threw up blocks of text that fought with the words coming out of their mouths. It occurred to me, at some point, that these folks either don't know that blocks of prose on slides is presentation death, or else they think it doesn't apply to them, or else they don't care. If they don't care, shame on them, but I probably can't convince them. If they think the rules don't apply, I can reassure them that they do. But if they don't know--if you, dear reader, don't know--then I can use the media at my disposal to spread the Gospel of PowerPoint, viz., Slides with a lot of text on them undermine the purpose of a presentation, which is communication.

A decent rule of thumb for PowerPoint is "7-by-7": No more than seven lines of text on a slide, with no more than seven words per line.

A much better rule is "5-by-5", since five lines of no more than five words each forces you--in a good way--to boil down your thoughts and to keep any one slide from becoming too busy.

A much better rule is "5": Five words or less on a slide.

So that we don't leave this as an abstraction, how about a hypothetical example? Let's say you're giving a lecture to undergraduates on the final phase of World War 2 in the Pacific. You could put up a slide with this on it:
  • The Allies--led by the Americans, but with forces from Australia, New Zealand, and Britain--"island-hopped" from Australia and Hawaii all the way to Okinawa. From mid-1942 to mid-1945, they fought a series of bloody battles with the Japanese at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Kwajalein, Saipan, Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima, etc.
  • The Philippines was not necessarily en route to Japanese home islands, but Douglas MacArthur had vowed "I shall return" when his troops had to retreat from the islands early in the war. So the Allies retook the Philippines first, even though some strategists thought an eastern approach to Japan made more sense.
  • Once the Allies put themselves in bombing range of Japan, they started heavy bombing of Tokyo and other locations. Tokyo was firebombed around the clock; perhaps 200,000 died, mostly civilians.
  • Harry Truman decided to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. Bombs were dropped on Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945). This was done for several reasons:
  • --Kept U.S./Allies from making amphibious assault over hundreds of miles of open ocean.
  • --Brought a swift end to the war as a whole.
  • --Showed U.S. power to Soviets, who might have gotten ideas about expanding opportunistically in the region with Japan out of the way.
I say you could do this--if you want to put the class to sleep. Alternately, you could say the things above, with more detail and fuller explanations, while letting the slides hammer your point home visually.

Slide 1A: A map of the Pacific with big blue stars showing the locations of battles. Heading: "Island-hopping".
Slide 1B: An aerial photograph of any island battle in the Pacific. Heading: "Naval and land battles".
Slide 1C: The famous photo of GIs planting the flag on Iwo Jima. Heading: "Iwo Jima".

Slide 2A: Same map of the Pacific, but with arrows showing the eastern and western routes of island-hopping. Heading: "Philippines campaign".
Slide 2B: Famous photo of Douglas MacArthur wading ashore. Heading " 'I shall return.' "

Slide 3: Aerial photo of Tokyo under attack. Heading: "Tokyo firestorm".

Slide 4A: Harry Truman sitting at his desk, looking serious. Heading: "Truman and the Bomb".
Slide 4B: Any photo of scientists at Los Alamos. Heading: "Manhattan Project".
Slide 4C: Photo of a mushroom cloud. Heading: "Hiroshima & Nagasaki".

Click-click-click, you go through the slides as you're making your points. How much easier is it going to be for the sleep-deprived 19-year-olds in your audience to follow you?

This thirtysomething is also sleep-deprived and prone to distraction, so throw me a bone: Speak your prose and use your slides to hammer home your points visually.

Here endeth the lesson.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Tim, could you post this on a billboard, please? Preferably one in Austin near the place where we toil and endure so many bad presentations!

1:38 PM  

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