30 May 2014

How many words should I use on each slide?

There are 300 million PowerPoint users in the world. They make 30 million presentations each day. About a million presentations are being made right now. Many of them are rather poor. One of the reasons why most presentations are so painful is because we tend to include too many words on each slide. The average PowerPoint slide includes 40 words. The result? Boring presentations.
However, the presentation tool itself is not boring—it is the way we use it that is boring. A presentation is not merely a transfer of information—it should go far deeper than that. You want to change people so that they will eventually believe in what you believe (be it a product, an idea, a project, etc.). But you won’t inspire anybody if you display slides with 40 words. Research shows that people are not able to read and listen at the same time, so the more words you have in your slides the more your audience will be distracted and not able to listen to you. Everybody knows this truth but very few seem to do anything about it. Especially in the corporate world many professionals still use bullet-point slides because that is the way it has always been done. 
We can read between 150 and 300 words per minute on average. That makes about 15 seconds to read a 40-word slide. And I’m being conservative because I’m not considering the distraction you inevitably incur when the presenter is speaking at the same time. Nancy Duarte—founder and CEO of Duarte Design—judges the quality of visual displays based on what she calls the Glance Test; that is, people should be able to grasp the idea behind a visual within about three seconds. That’s how billboards are designed too. As you can see there is a huge difference between ideal world and reality. How many valuable insights will be ignored by your audience due to the only reason that they can’t perform two tasks at the same time? 
What’s the optimal number of words then?
The answer is it depends. Every situation is unique and an approach which works for a certain presentation may not work for another. However, some experts did try to come up with an optimal figure. For instance, Seth Godin never includes more than six words on a slide. Guy Kawasaki never uses a font smaller than 30 points (see his 10-20-30 rule) to prevent him for using too many words. I’m not a fan of strict rules when it comes to designing slides, so I don’t think there is an optimal number of words you need to adhere to. However, Godin’s and Kawasaki’s rules go towards the right direction. They both restrain your desire to include a lot of text. 
An unequivocal truth does exist though: less is more. Every time you are not sure about whether to include an element or not, don’t. It’s better to err because you left it out than because you included it. 
Sample slides
I prepared two before-after slides in order for you to understand how you can follow this approach in your next presentation. Suppose you work in Sales and you are responsible for a certain business unit within your company (the Automotive industry) and your colleagues ask you to give them an update on the performance of that industry. On the left-hand side you have a common bullet-point slide, the one you have probably seen many times; on the right-hand side you see how I would remake it for maximum impact. Remember, in visual communication there is nothing better than combining images and text. You don't need to write every single statement on your slides. Rather, show the main idea and then complement it with your delivery. This way your colleagues will quickly look at your slide, have an idea of where you want to go and then come back to you to listen to your message. 
Personally, I would even go for a slide like the one below because I tend to include only what is necessary, not more. If you think about it, all the supporting points you see in the original version can be mentioned directly by you. 
Keep it simple
You might be thinking, this approach is too simplistic. Truth is, simple and simplistic have not the same meaning. Simplistic means oversimplifying. Simple instead means plain, not complicated, easy to understand. Sounds nicer, doesn’t it?
Research shows that people learn more effectively from multimedia messages when they don’t include unnecessary elements. Too many words on a slide are an unnecessary element. When you design your slides, any element should be there for a reason. To make sure this is the case, every time you are about to add something, ask yourself: does this particular element add meaning to the message I want to communicate? If the answer is yes, keep it. If it isn’t, leave it out.

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