Stop Overloading Your Presentations

Stock analysts love charts. Excel is their tool of choice. When used to accurately predict the future price movements of stocks or the economy, charts are beneficial. The problem occurs when charts meet PowerPoint. The combination can be deadly boring. Recently, Morgan Stanley (MS) analyst Mary Meeker kicked off the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco with a discussion of the stock market, the economy, and technology trends. Morgan Stanley posted the slides online; a video of the presentation is available on YouTube (GOOG).

The presentation itself contained some interesting information about the growth of the tech sector and areas within the sector that Meeker predicts are poised to boom. But the delivery suffered from the all-too-common sin of information overload; too many themes, words, charts, and slides.

Too many themes. Meeker kicked off the presentation by outlining eight themes she would discuss over the next 16 minutes. Eight themes in 16 minutes leave only two minutes per theme. One theme was attention grabbing: The mobile Internet will be bigger than most people think. But it was lost in the cascade of themes.

The human brain can only absorb three or four "chunks" of information at a time, according to research, so skilled presenters should avoid bombarding their audiences with more than three main points. Some of the best speeches and presentations are divided into three parts. Microsoft (MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer opened the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January with a presentation that focused on the three areas "where technology had the opportunity to transform people's lives." It was well received. In early September, Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs gave a keynote presentation that highlighted three products: the iPhone, iPod, and iTunes—and he had 90 minutes to do it. It also went over well. I can't repeat this enough: Eight themes in 16 minutes is simply too many.

Too many words. Many of the 68 slides in the Morgan Stanley presentation had more than 150 words each. There were so many words that in some cases the letters had to shrink to 9-point type. It's hard enough to read 9-point type from 12 inches away. Now imagine sitting in an audience 20 feet from the slides. Of course it's impossible to read. But that's not the only problem. Scientists have found that the brain interprets every letter as a picture, meaning that when you put too many words on a slide, your brain is literally choking on stimulus. It can't focus. Some experts have suggested that no slide should contain letters smaller than 30-point type. Good advice, because it's easier for your audience to read and it forces you to use fewer words. I recommend going further. Create some slides in 96-point type and use one word.

Too many charts. In Morgan Stanley's 68-slide deck, 48 slides contained charts or tables. I can understand one or two charts to reinforce particular trends, but 48? That's mind-numbing. There were so many charts that the speaker had to rush through them. One complicated slide showed a positive trend: manufacturing activity returning to normal levels. The slide showed yearly manufacturing activity from 1948 to 2008. The audience had all of three seconds to absorb it. Another slide, showing some risks like the rising tide of commercial mortgage defaults, was kept on the screen for exactly 2.74 seconds. Yes, I timed it. Charts should be kept to a minimum and budgeted plenty of time to explain. For example, you need time to tell the audience: "Here is what this squiggly line means and here's what the other squiggly line means. When the two lines meet, that's a good thing (or a bad thing)."

Too many slides. Sixty-eight slides for a 16-minute presentation is too many. Although it's difficult to give advice on the ideal number of slides in a presentation, entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki once suggested that you take the number of minutes you're planning to speak and divide it by two—that's the number of slides you should have. There's a good reason for this: A presentation is not about the slides. It's about you and the story you tell. Delivering too many slides can take the attention away from the speaker and the content. The only time I would suggest breaking the Kawasaki rule is when the PowerPoint contains many photographs or images that complement, but don't compete with, the content.

Every day millions of people commit the sin of overloading their presentations. It's not easy to simplify. Presenters, especially number crunchers, face subtle and not-so-subtle pressure to add more—more slides, more data, more charts. I've witnessed the following scenario many times: A boss drops in to the conference room, looks at the presentation and says, "You only have 10 slides? That's it? Can you add more charts?" Fight the temptation to add. Instead, strip a presentation down so only its essence is revealed. It might sound counterintuitive ,but simplicity is more powerful and, ultimately, more engaging.

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