Reducing Text Overload – Finding the Pony


Presentation experts will tell you to reduce the text in your PowerPoint slides. In this audacious and ambitious post, I’m going to try to tell you why and how.

If you don’t understand the title of this post, read this.

Consider this slide:

slide 1

What’s wrong with this? It looks like millions of other PowerPoint slides.

First, imagine yourself in the audience (see this rant) of a typical stand up presentation scenario. What do you do when this slide appears? Obviously, you read it. This has a few implications:

  • While you’re reading ahead, you can’t listen to the speaker, who, at this point is trying to tell you about the first bullet.

Cognitive research has suggested that this is true because the same part of your brain is involved in listening and “silent reading.” Who knew?

Whether you believe this or not, you will probably admit that your attention to the speaker has been compromised.

  • When you are done reading, you must re-set yourself to catch up with the presenter. But, since you missed the introduction, you may take a while to comprehend the speaker; this adds to your “cognitive load.”
  • You may even decide that, since you have read the slide, there’s no need to pay attention at all and drop out.

From the presenter’s point of view, this is a disaster.

What can you do about this? In this post, I’m going to demonstrate some approaches that will help, using the slide above and another from the same PowerPoint file.

First, some caveats:

  • I found this file on the Internet a few years ago; my intent is not to criticize this specific author or his organization.  Believe me, the slides are not unusual; there are millions like them out there.
  • I know little about the subject matter and can only surmise the author’s intent. However, I tried not to change the message.
  • I assume that this file is to be used in the usual “conference room” scenario – a presenter, slides and an audience.
  • I have preserved the “bullet” approach even though many believe this is a deadly way to use PowerPoint. My experience has been that many clients are extremely reluctant to abandon this style so I have tried to improve the presentation within the “bullet” framework.
  • I do not intend the result to work as a handout; good presentations make lousy handouts.
  • I have removed “design elements.” I’m not discussing that subject in this post.
  • It may be that the overall presentation structure could use work as well but I am not attempting that here.

The bullets on the slide are not bad, they are just misplaced. Bullets should be headlines and the speaker should tell the story. This is (partly) how you avoid the disaster outlined above. So, what I usually do first is copy the bullets to the notes section where they might become the basis for the handout.

Then I identify the action words in each bullet; with luck, these are forms of verbs. Here’s my result:

slide 1a

Making use of these action words, adding a few words from the source and adopting a parallel structure (verb-object) yields this slide:


slide 1bI highlighted “diverse” because it is the only word that does not appear in the original text; it seems to capture the author’s intent, though.

Notice the parallel construction – each point is grammatically a verb and object. The original text used at least two different forms.

This is much more digestible but there remains a problem. Even though the text is much shorter, the audience may still read ahead, reset and drop out.

The solution to this is “progressive disclosure.” In this case we use animation to reveal one item at a time:

The animation uses the option to change the text color (“dimming”) after the effect. This helps assure that the audience’s attention is on the current point.

Some experts will advise you to present one idea per slide. I think the problem with this approach is that the context is lost. In this example, the “ideas” are related; showing them each isolated on single slides could cause the audience to lose track of the relationship. In the kinds of presentations I work on, the content is not simple and keeping the audience on track is critical. This may not be important if you’re showing your vacation pictures.

Here’s another slide from the same presentation:

slide 2

As before, I have highlighted the key words in each bullet. The first 3 bullets describe a hierarchy of “services” and resources. The next 3 bullets describe conditions that complicate the hierarchy. Finally, the last bullets state that a solution is important but difficult. This is a common sales ploy: tell the customer that he has a complex problem and that he needs your help to solve it.

I decided to break the original slide into 4 slides, as indicated by the brackets above. Slides are cheap; there is no value (and a lot of harm) in minimizing the number of slides by packing them full.

I replaced the first three bullets with a few words, simple graphics and progressive disclosure to show the relationships:

Based on this concept, the next slide lists the multiplying forces and shows the increasing number of services and complexity:

Adding a simple graphic to represent scrutiny and simply listing the final points completes the series:

If you are adverse to animation, just use the text on these slides.

I have used two techniques to reduce the text overload generated by these slides:

  • Severe editing. You may find the editing process time-consuming and painful. Brevity is difficult; in a famous letter attributed to Pascal (and others), he apologizes because he had not the time to make it shorter.
  • Simple graphics/animation. You know a picture is worth a bunch of words, even a simple one. Simple animation adds even more descriptive power.

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