Presenter’s Manifesto: Less Words, More Talking

Today we discuss Tip 5 in the Presenter’s Manifesto, which is “Less words, more talking”. At first that may seem like a paradox. In this case, “less words” means less words on the screen, rather than in what you have to say. Edward Tufte has made one particular Nasa slide about the Challenger disaster quite famous in his book Beautiful Evidence. Here’s a version of it that we’ll use to illustrate Tip 5 and several others. What strikes you most about this slide?

Wow…


One could point out many things, but the primary thing wrong is that it is simply too busy. The 6 different levels of hierarchy do break the text up a bit, but that misses the point. This slide requires the audience to read a lot, and when they’re reading, they are not listening.

And this is just a single slide. Imagine how 20 or 30 of these in a row will affect the audience’s attention and TTD. Their eyes will glaze over quickly, and you are virtually guaranteed of wearing them out and losing them. Few, if any of your key points are likely to be remembered, but the fact that you crushed them with information that they couldn’t possible retain will be.

Always remember that you are presenting, not the slides. The words on the screen should be as few as necessary to reinforce the ideas you are putting forth. If you need to convey as much information as shown above, it’s better to use good old fashioned sentences and put them into a document that you distribute either prior to, or after the presentation.

It might be tempting to think this single slide could be saved by merely splitting it into two or three, and voila, problem solved. But it’s important to remember that slides, even when used well, are by their nature very low resolution, meaning, they can’t say very much effectively. The result is that if you are planning to use a lot of text to make your points, you are going to need a lot of slides. Dozens and dozens of slides. Or put another way, you are going to require your audience to endure a relentless onslaught of one overwhelming slide after another, effectively anesthetizing them to the heart of your message. That is definitely not the result we are looking for.

As good presenters, we observe Tip 5, “Less Words, More Talking”. Our slides will use as few words as possible, and each one will reinforce the words we are speaking. Each word used will be carefully chosen to help illustrate the ideas we are communicating.

This post is part of the series “The Presenter’s Manifesto”.  You can find the beginning of the series here: Presenter’s Manifesto – Prologue