11 January 2014

Slides or Documents? How to Avoid Slideuments

A few weeks ago I showed a friend of mine a presentation I recently made for a company. The objective of this presentation was to show two of their potential customers what that company was able to do in a particular business. This guy looked at the deck and told me: “Your presentation is vey beautiful, as always. However, since it is supposed to be addressed to a customer, you need to fill in the slides with more content”. This answer is the reason why I decided to write a new post.

I agree, content is king. However, as the guys at Big Fish Presentations would say, design is its queen. You don't have to include every single detail in your slides. In fact, slides should be as visual as possible to complement your talk.

I see a huge problem in today’s presentation design: people confuse slides with documents. However, slides and documents are not the same thing. What happens is that in an attempt to kill two birds with one stone, people shoot for the middle and create slides which are nothing but text documents. The result is what Garr Reynolds call slideumentsIn her book slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, Nancy Duarte define a slideument as “a slide that’s really a text document created as a slide”.

I think there are 3 main causes leading to the creation of slideuments.

  • A corporate reason. Inside organisations of any kindcompanies, universities, conferencesrules against good presentation design flourish. From employees being asked to print slides for later use to conference managers asking speakers to hand in their presentation in advance. Even professors often warn students from creating visual slides for their dissertation speech. Those are all bad habits which need to be challenged because they go against what many pieces of research have proven to be effective in visual communication.
  • A cultural reason. People are so used to Death by PowerPoint that consider certain habits to be acceptable. In his book Maverick!: The Success Story Behind the World's Most Unusual Workplace, entrepreneur Ricardo Semler wrote about dress codes this way: “people want to feel secure and one way to accomplish this is to dress like anybody else”. I think that Semler’s view on the uselessness of dress codes applies to presentation design too. People want to feel secure and one way to accomplish this is to present like anybody else.    
  • A practical reason. As a Brain Slides article pointed out back in 2011, a presentation is meant to be an oral delivery of information. A document, instead, is useful to provide textual information. Therefore, “documents are meant to be information dense, while slides are not”. It’s that simple, it does not make sense to use PowerPoint to create documents (when I say PowerPoint I mean any presentation tool, like Keynote, Prezi, etc.).
Truth is, you don’t have to use slides, but if you do, make them visual. Steve Jobsone of the best presenters of corporate products eversaid that “people who know what they are talking about don’t need PowerPoint”. Slides are not meant to stand alone. You are the presentation. Slides must only support your talk by helping you make your point clearer to your audience.

Sometimes though, more details are needed. You may want to explain a graph better, or give more information about your products or services. What you can do is to print out a document as a handout in which you can include as many details as you like. A handout is a written document which allows you to show the details of your topic without compromising the effectiveness of your visuals. Anything which is impossible to show in the visual presentationbut still important for the audience to knowshould be presented in the form of a handout. This document can be given after the presentation so that those who are interested in knowing more about your topic or your company have something to use as a reference. Alternatively, you can hand it in during your talk and refer to it if you need to show more details. Say for example you want your potential customer to know all the specifications of a product you would like to offer to them. Instead of including all the details in a bullet point-style slide, why not show a high quality photo of your product, explain your potential customer how they can benefit from it and invite them to look at the handout for the specs? This is also a way to build breaks, change the path of your presentation and make the attention span longer.  

The solution is not to avoid details, as many people think. The solution is to use both visual slides that complement your talk and a handout in which you can include as many details as you need.

You may be thinking, “but this takes time!”. Yes, it does. Then, find the time! I am not suggesting something faster, I am suggesting something better. But think about it, what are the stakes? Making an effective presentation might help you get funded by an investor, or gain a new customer, or get a project approved by your boss. It is not (only) about creating something which is well-designed, sometimes the stakes are so high that it is worth spending time to stand out from the crowd and gain your audience’s trust.


Garr Reynolds - Slideuments and the catch-22 for conference speakers

Martin Fowler - Slideument
Oliver Adria - Slideuments and how to avoid them
Presentation Impact - Turning ‘slideuments’ into visual aids
Phil Waknell - Do Investors Like Slideuments?
Brain Slides - A Solution to Slideuments