Recently I had the opportunity to hear the CFO of a large corporation tell his company’s turnaround story. It was a gripping tale, involving a passage through Chapter 11, an attempted hostile takeover, and then a process of smart decisions leading to sustainable profitability today.

Throughout the presentation, however, I kept fighting distractions.

The slides.

Each slide was densely packed with data. Charts, graphs, and tons of text. After a few slides I realized that the spoken words were far more compelling than the slides, and I stopped paying attention to them.

I wish I could say this were an uncommon story. As you probably know, it’s not.

PowerPoint slides are supposed to help a presentation – but too often they become lead weight around the ankles of even a very good one. The audience is presented with a choice: do I listen to the speaker, or do I read the slide?

You might think the C suites of the Fortune 500 would be less likely to fall into this storytelling malady. Instead, in my experience, PowerPoint can be misused at both big and small organizations, and by everyone from middle managers to CEOs. By middling speakers and (in the case of this CFO) very good ones.

So how do you avoid building slides that sabotage your presentation? It comes down to a few very simple things, focused on clarity.

1. Keep slide copy short. One of the analogies we often use at Presentation Partners is that a PowerPoint deck is “the movie trailer, not the movie.” Between 20 and 40 words per slide will help accentuate your point. More than 80 (not atypical) may ensure that your audience doesn’t hear a word you say. Speaking of which, you may be wondering how an 80-word chunk reads. Answer? You’ll know as soon as you reach the end of this sentence.

2. Put the most important stuff at the top. Most presenters badly misuse slide real estate, starting with a title that doesn’t say anything (“Quarterly outlook,” etc.), with more interesting information jammed into smaller-font bullet points below. Instead, why not use that “title” space for the most important point of a slide? “WidgetCo is on track for record profitability this quarter.”

3. Think, “what does the audience actually need to know?” Most presenters succumb to the urge to pack their slides with facts, figures and statistics. No question, there’s security in having a lot of numbers and bullet points that back up the points you’re making. But the place for them isn’t jammed onto a slide most won’t be able to read. Instead, you might want to put your charts, graphs and tables into appendices either at the end of the deck, or in a handout the audience takes with them and reads on their own time.

It comes down to a few rules of thumb – which happen to run completely contrary to our innate desires to present ourselves as smart, sophisticated and on top of things. Which is probably why they’re so rarely seen in the wild.

Nonetheless, the more you can focus on clarity and simplicity, the more you’ll stay out of your own way as you present.

-Reid Davis

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