4 PowerPoint Presentation Mistakes — Text In Slides

Not all presentations need visuals.

And not all visuals need to be slides.

And not all slides need to have text. (Quite the contrary, in fact.)

But in those important presentations that you deliver — the ones that feature specific information that your audience really needs to understand and walk away with, clearly in their minds — those presentations should almost definitely be done with slides. And at least some of those slides will quite likely need to have text.

How you work with text in slides is really important. If you do it wrong, you run the risk of failing to impart the crucial information your audience needs, which can lead to them not taking the action you want them to take. And the whole point of your presentation will be lost.

But if you do it right, you keep their attention with you at all times, you lead them where you want them to go, and you maximize your chances of success.

So let’s go through a short list of Do’s and Don’ts.

don't use your slides like a teleprompter

Don’t get me wrong: It’s fine to script every word of your presentation out if you feel you need to. But don’t read to your audience. If you need to script everything, then memorize it. But I don’t think you do need to script and memorize. Just plan a tight order of events, and learn it. Run through the content several times as you learn the order of events, and you’ll find that the words will come, quickly and easily.

This leads us to…

Don’t Use Your Slides Like An Outline

The bottom line is, use text in your slides as little as you can. If your audience needs a data point in their head, go ahead and put it in the slide. But always use as few visible words as possible.

Don’t Ask Your Audience To Read and Listen To You At The Same Time

When you do choose to put text in, strategize it carefully and consciously. If you have a slide featuring a quote, for example, do one of two things: Invite the audience to read the quote themselves and watch their eyes so you can tell when they’re with you again, or read the quote out loud to them. But don’t say other stuff while there’s a lot of text on the screen. Most people’s eyes are magnetized to text, and reading will distract them from what you’re talking about. At the same time, your words will distract them from the text on the screen. Their experience will be confused, and the message will be muddied. Get them through the quote, then change the slide so the words are no longer there to distract them.

Don’t Make Your Audience Squint

Sometimes you need to show your audience a graphic that has a lot of parts to it, and those parts feature text that is so small, the audience couldn’t possibly read it. In situations like this, you need to be extremely clear on what your point is, what your reason is for featuring the graphic in the first place. If it’s a spreadsheet that tracks a lot of information, maybe what you need to communicate is a shortlist of the info that your audience needs to know gets tracked. Maybe they also need to know what the document looks like, so you can show them an overall image, then zoom in on crucial pieces of text inside of the document. But don’t feel locked into a single image that features illegibly tiny text. It will leave your audience feeling frustrated and incomplete.

The bottom line is, words should only appear on your slide if it is absolutely critical that those exact words and concepts stick in the brains of your audience. If you go through your content judiciously, you will recognize that not every word — and not even every idea — is absolutely critical in that way. Identify what is absolutely core information, and only allow that to show up in visual language on your slides. That way, your audience will know what’s most important to them, and your slides will back you up, rather than compete with you.

What are your thoughts and questions about this? Do you have any specific slide situations you want to run past us? Any disagreements? Let us know below! 

 

5 Comments

  1. Bruce Girton on March 12, 2015 at 11:50 am

    Hear, hear. I’m not a frequent presenter, but I’ve watched more than a few that were more painful than necessary.
    I think that PowerPoint presentations are like motion pictures. Transitions are critical. The presentation needs to lead the audience smoothly from one point to the next, without disrupting the “suspension of disbelief” and losing the audience’s attention.
    I think that the silent pauses are as important as the spoken content – people need time to process information.
    I prefer presentations where the speaker does not repeat words that I have already read two or three times before the speaker finishes saying them, and does not describe graphics that I can see for myself – I need their words to impart meaning that is not already obvious.

    • Pete Machalek on March 12, 2015 at 3:49 pm

      You know I love the idea of presentations being like motion pictures, Bruce! Tell me more about the “suspension of disbelief” reference here. I understand it’s place in films. What connection do you see for this in presentations? It’s an intriguing thought.

  2. Rolf Olson on March 12, 2015 at 12:46 pm

    I agree with your points. See Guy Kawasaki’ s book, “The Art of the Start” chapter 3, on ppt : 10 slides, 20 min 30 pt font.
    His focus is pitches for startups, but applies to all presentations.
    Thanks!
    Rolf Olson
    Lightwave Photonics.

    • Pete Machalek on March 12, 2015 at 3:53 pm

      Thank you for sharing this, Rolf! I’m hesitant to subscribe to a “one size fits all” formula like that, although I totally agree with the “30 point font” part.

  3. Dan Dondelinger on March 16, 2015 at 9:13 am

    Pete, Thanks – I totally agree with your points. This is a great refresher of what I already knew and need to work on.

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