If you could only change one thing to make your slides better support you as a presenter, I would advise you to do this: Make your slides as simple as possible.

Even tremendously talented presenters struggle with a desire to include all of their talking points in their slides; here are slides from a presentation I found online given at a recent Neuroscience Symposium:

There are a lot of reasons that we include more content than our audience needs in our slides. Here are a few that I have (and some that I continue to) struggle with.

  1. I need all of my presentation content on the slides so that people can read it later.

While it is important to have the information from your presentation available for your audience afterwards, you don’t have to pack all of your content into your slides.

After your presentation, you should definitely share a synthesized version of your presentation content with your audience. Put your talking points in the “Presenter Notes” of your deck or creating a separate handout altogether. Is this more work? Yes. Is your audience worth it? Absolutely.

  1. I don’t want to forget my talking points or get them out of order.

I feel you; this is one of my biggest stressors too. If you want to avoid forgetting your talking points, build in extra time to practice your presentation in advance.

With some extra practice, the images (and minimal text) on your slides will help remind you of your talking points. A future post will address the best tips and techniques for confidently preparing for your presentation, but there’s no substitute for repetition and practice.

  1. These details are important.

Of all of the arguments we tell ourselves for filling our slides with content, this can be the hardest to see through. It's natural to be proud of the work you've done, but it's time to really put yourself in your audience's shoes here. Ask yourself if they will genuinely benefit from physically reading each line of text on your slide or whether that will be a distraction from your message.

Nine times out of ten, you need to just cut to the chase and tell them the outcome (or pick one to three top details to share, and split them across multiple slides). You're going to need to be ruthless with your editing, and the more you care about your presentation topic, the harder this will be. Honestly, I think this is one of the hardest parts of creating a great presentation.

  1. My boss (or someone else in the audience) insists I show all of my notes.

Often this can be the result of some underlying trust issues; try this: slowly shift your granular details to some appendix slides hidden in your presentation deck. And, at least for a while, I'd include as much information as you possibly can back there just in case. That way, if you get a specific question, or someone wants to see all of your work or processes, you have that information at your fingertips.

Hopefully, after you demonstrate that you consistently have approached your work in a thoughtful and thorough manner and that you always have the information available, you can earn some lattitude in your presentation deck itself.

The thing you need to remember is that your slides are the backdrop, you are the presentation. Slides help you tell your story by visually supporting your talking points in the simplest way possible. The audience has come to connect with you; the slides provide visual evidence or backdrop to help your audience better understand, see, or feel what you’re talking about at a quick glance.

Case Study

So here's a mental assignment for you:

Think about the one person in your life that has made the most positive impact on who you are as a person. It could be a mentor, a sibling, a spouse, a child, or a friend. Now imagine that I asked you to tell an audience about this person and why you selected them. You might start by telling the audience who the person is. Perhaps you’d give a physical description or tell the audience about her past.

Now to do this effectively, you would likely not need to prepare much. And, quite frankly, you could probably tell a compelling story about this person without using a single slide. But let’s say I asked you to make a slide to help the audience get to know this person.

When you opened your presentation software, what’s the first thing you would think to put on your slide to introduce this person to an audience?

The traditional headline-and-bullets approach.

Do you think this person’s story would best be represented by a header and a few bullets of text? This approach is not visually engaging for your audience. Even if you don’t read this verbatim, it’s challenging for people to process and retain information that they are reading and hearing simultaneously. Additionally, people can read much faster than you can speak, and the urge to read ahead is very difficult to suppress; so they will likely be reading bullets ahead of you. Numerous studies have demonstrated that this leads to a significant reduction in retention: people just can’t read and listen at the same time (more on this later).

Your initial instinct might have also been to incorporate a photo into your slide. While this is a good idea, many presenters will simply add the image alongside the bullets. Since there’s more to fit on the screen, this hybrid approach means that your image (and likely text) will be noticeably smaller. As a result, your audience will have a harder time seeing the image and reading the text.

The hybrid bullets-and-image approach.

What if, instead, you relied on large, personal images, and introduced your loved one authentically and conversationally? I feel confident that you wouldn't need words on the screen to help you remember facts; instead, the images would serve as a cue for you, and without words, the audience could focus on you and your story. Perhaps it would look something like this:

“My sister Marybeth has played a major role in who I am today. This is a photo of us when we were kids – hanging out at the local playground. She’s always been the life of the party, making everyone laugh. Family legend has it that I had been moping around at the playground and Marybeth was doing everything she could to cheer me up and make me laugh. Right before we took this picture, she’d tickled me until I fell off this playground equipment – you can sort of see that I was clinging onto it for dear life. Well now Marybeth has grown up. She’s a big time…”

“…photographer for a journal in New York City. She’s come a long way from throwing her brother off playground equipment. And, as you can see…”

“…she’s still got her unique perspective. But now she gets paid to make people laugh. Let me tell you about the time Marybeth saved my life…”

In future posts, we’ll dive into how the cognitive mechanisms of engagement and learning impact your audience’s attention. We’ll also give you some tips on how you use text on your slides effectively, and we’ll tackle how you can make data-heavy slides more memorable and keep your audience’s attention while you’re navigating presentations like financial report-outs and audit results.

* Presenter Notes Instructions: Keynote , PowerPoint .

Cover photo by Harli Marten on Unsplash