Use the "10-40 Rule" to Improve Your Presentations

What could you do today to increase the potential that your next presentation will hit a home run with your prospects and existing customers? Answer: Cut the bloat. A recent New York Times article mentioned a website calling for people to live on no more than 100 personal items. I'd like to start a similar push in business communications, but instead of giving up personal items, I'd like you to consider giving up words on PowerPoint slides. Simplicity will give you an edge.

In the past several months I've heard from numerous executives who have used the advice in this column to dramatically simplify their presentations and win new customers in a ferociously competitive environment. These individuals are top executives or sales professionals at a wide range of companies, including one of the world's largest energy companies, a Fortune 500 medical device manufacturer, a giant pharmaceutical company, and a large, publicly traded technology company. If they can reduce their brands' complicated messages to a few words and images in a PowerPoint deck, so can you. Consider these pointers.

The 10-40 Rule. The first 10 slides in your PowerPoint presentation should contain no more than 40 words. I arrived at this method after learning that the average single slide contains 40 words. However, the most persuasive presentations I've ever seen—including many from Apple (AAPL) Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs—contain 40 or fewer words on the first 10 slides.

I recently met with a group of sales professionals for a large social-networking site who have used the 10-40 Rule to completely transform their sales presentations. The difference is astonishing. Their original deck contained 400 words in the first 10 slides. The new deck has fewer than 40. The result—customers love it. Their customers are advertising buyers who see up to 10 pitches or more per day. Customers have thanked these sales professionals for simplifying the information and, more important, for giving them a simple message to discuss with senior decision-makers.

Why it works. The human brain interprets every letter as a picture. By filling your slides with words, you are literally choking the brain on images that render it virtually incapable of making sense out of your slide. The most persuasive presentations strike a visual-verbal balance between words and pictures.

How to do it. Here's the trick. You cannot follow the 10-40 Rule by opening your PowerPoint slide as your first step. PowerPoint immediately offers a template prompting you for words. Start with pen and paper instead (or whiteboard and marker). Sketch, brainstorm, and think outside the slides. How can you make the message visually interesting? Remember, the content is the narrative; the slides complement the narrative.

For example, I just prepared a presentation that I plan deliver to an annual conference of business group leaders in Los Angeles. The topic is inspirational leadership and communications. My first 10 slides contain a total of 37 words (and that includes my title slide, "The 7 Secrets of Inspiring Leaders"). Here is the breakdown:

1. Title slide (6 words)

2. Quote (17 words)

3. Video clip

4. Image and text (3 words)

5. Image

6. One sentence (3 words)

7. Photograph and text (1 word)

8. Image

9. Video clip

10. Photograph and text (7 words)

Millions of PowerPoint presentations are delivered every day. In most cases, the presentations are intended to transform minds—to engage, persuade, and ultimately motivate an audience to act. But those same audiences see the same type of presentations one after another—presentations cluttered with words, charts, and bullet points. Simple presentations are more memorable and will leave a far deeper and longer-lasting impression on your prospects. Follow the 10-40 Rule for presentation success.

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