Questions About Presentations: A Rarely Asked Question

“How many words should I put on each slide?”

If the most frequent question I get is “how many slides should I have?” you would think a follow up question would be “how many words can I put on each slide?”.

But this is one of the rarest questions I get. Why is that?

I think it is because we’re conditioned to think about whole documents, not the sections that make them up. The how many slides question is like asking about the word limit of a manuscript.

Thinking about how many words per slide when you first approach a talk feels like worrying about how many words you have on the given page of a document. Unless you are a copy editor, you probably think of pages as convenient units of a manuscript that end up with however many words they happen to get, based on the overarching format of the whole document.

But presentations are not text documents. They are presentations.

The rules of designing a presentation are different than designing a manuscript. What does a presentation look like if you approach it the way you design a text document?

Treating slides like portions of a manuscript could result in the sort of 120 word slide demonstrated in a previous post.

FAQ series.001.jpegMost presentation writers know that a slide like this is a train wreck: slides should not look like text documents with a slightly different layout. To guide presenters who are not used to graphic design, there are standard options for slide layout in presentations software. So it is common to have slides that summarize information to a title and bullets format:

FAQ series.004.jpegThis slide has 96 words, so does that mean it’s only 20% better than a slide with 120 words? Perhaps. What does a slide look like if we continue to edit based solely on the word count?

FAQ series.005.jpeg

This slide has 20 words, which is 83% fewer words than a 120 word slide.

Does a list of short bullets look >80% better than a 120 word slide?

Not to me, and probably not to you.

So slide design is very different than text document design. Yet many speakers’ presentations look like the slides version of a manuscript. Why? They are not putting audiences first. They are putting content first and everything after.

Audiences do not perceive of the whole presentation the same way that speakers do.

Audiences only see each slide you show them, separate from all the others. So each slide should be designed as if it is the only thing being seen … because to the audience it is the only thing being seen.

With every slide you write, ask yourself “Does this slide …?”:

  • capture attention?
  • retain that attention effectively?
  • respect the minds of the audience at this point of the talk?

There is a lot to unpack in these questions, especially the last one, and with this blog over the next few weeks I’m going to speak to each of them.

In summary, design slides in a way that make slides easy to take in. Not just as components of a whole document that the audience never sees in bulk.

Put audiences first:

FAQ series.003.jpeg

This part of a series of Questions About Presentations. Perhaps it will answer a question you have. Perhaps it will encourage you to ask more questions. 

Want to know more tips to improve your presentations? Contact me to learn more about my workshops and 1-on-1 coaching services – I look forward to helping you Put Audiences First.

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