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Is Your Audience Hearing You?

Is your audience hearing you?

How less text commands more attention in a PowerPoint presentation

Just like people, PowerPoint decks can suffer from information overload.

A deck that’s overstuffed with text leads to a tuned-out audience. That’s not just because text-heavy slides are boring and unsightly (which they are). It’s because these slides detract from the words that you, the presenter, are saying in your presentation.

Here’s why: People are not good at listening and reading at the same time. The brain can only process language through one input at a time. The brain also absorbs information faster when it’s read versus heard. So if you present your audience with a large block of text, they will immediately stop listening to you and start reading the text.

Text-heavy slides also tend to weaken your skills as a presenter. Research shows that speakers who treat their slides like index cards or speaker notes end up being more anxious during their presentations. They’re also more likely to omit important details during their talks.

Striking the right balance

So what’s the right balance? How do you know if your slides have too much text?

A good rule of thumb is to limit each slide to one key idea. To support that idea, you can go one of three routes: Add a couple of supporting bullet points. Include an infographic that reinforces your takeaway. Or feature a picture that reflects your message and emotionally resonates with your audience.

The same goes for your speaker notes—those notes that are only visible to you, that is. Resist the temptation to load your notes with detailed paragraphs as a means of preparation. Not only will these notes make you sound like you’re reading off a script, they’ll prevent you from connecting with the audience and keeping tabs on the energy in the room.

That also means that you’ll need to spend more time rehearsing your presentation. However, that’s a good thing. More preparation will help you gain confidence as a presenter, encourage you to speak more naturally in front of a crowd and enable you to better engage with your audience.

The goal is to keep the focus on you—not your deck—during the presentation. Think of your deck as a sidekick. It should support you, not steal the show. 

Rule of thumb: One idea per slide

Even with that information in mind, it’s still easy to fall victim to “content creep,” where you add a few words here and a bullet point there just to make things clear, and before you know it every slide looks like a page from a book.

So one general rule we like to keep in mind is “one idea per slide.” Now this doesn’t mean you can’t talk about multiple aspects of an idea, it just means that each slide should have a single clear main point. 

If you find that limiting yourself to one idea per slide is too challenging, there’s an easy solution: break it into two slides. As long as you are keeping the same amount of content between each slide, you aren’t really making the presentation longer, but you are making it clearer.

Update (02/24): we’ve revised this article to add some new strategies for dealing with slide content

Looking for more information about presentations and beyond? Check out our resources for expert advice and tested strategies.

About the author

Danielle John is the founder of VerdanaBold. She has more than 25 years as an award-winning designer and creative lead, directing the visual expression and production of thousands of high-value new business pitches, C-level presentations and internal presentations for major global brands. When she’s not busy at VerdanaBold, she can be found antique shopping and spending time with her husband and two kids.



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