How to stop information overload in your presentation

Do your presentations suffer from information overload?  One of my readers, Alec, wrote to me for help with this:

I know I should edit mercilessly, but the dilemma is that I’m often presenting fairly controversial points of view, or unorthodox (but proven) approaches, and so I know what all the objections or questions will be, and I try to build those into the presentation. I just don’t seem to be able to control the urge to “give more.”

Alec knows at an intellectual level that he should edit, but at an emotional level he’s driven to share more. Hence information overload. Here are my thoughts to help Alec – and you, should you share the information overload problem – fight the urge to add more content:

1. A presentation is the worst possible way to deliver lots of information

Information overload

Alec’s drive is to deliver maximum value to his audience. It seems to make intuitive sense that the way to deliver maximum value is to give the audience as much as possible. But information transfer doesn’t work that way.

A presentation is the worst possible way to deliver lots of information to another person. The person on the receiving end has no control. They can’t adjust the pace of delivery. They can’t pause to process and think.

2. Just because you say it doesn’t mean they will get it

I laboured under this comforting illusion for a long time! I had to be confronted time and time again with the reality that people hadn’t got what I’d said. People daydream, they think about what you just said and so miss what you’re saying now, or they don’t understand what you said. To combat these obstacles, you have to craft what you say and enhance it with an example or an analogy. It takes time to deliver that.

3. The more points you make, the less points they’ll get

Given that it takes time to deliver a well-crafted, memorable point, the more points you cram in, the less time you have to make each one. Therefore the less memorable each point will be.

And quite apart from the lack of time to develop each point, piling on one point after another dilutes the power of the one that came before. For help with editing your presentation check out this post: 9 Ways to Edit your Presentation.

4. Stop seeing your presentation as a one-off event

Are you driven by a scarcity mindset? Do you say to yourself “This is the only time I’m going to see these people, I’ve got to give them everything I’ve got.” That makes you want to cram in as much as possible.

So instead, view your presentation as just the beginning of your relationship with the people in your audience. You can deliver value to your audience in lots of other ways. Traditionally, we did this with handouts, but now you can:

  • Develop a website (or part of your existing website) to support your presentations with lots of additional resources
  • Keep people up-to-date with your thinking with a blog or email newsletter
  • Give people lots of different ways to contact you (email, Twitter, Facebook).

This idea is developed further by Cliff Atkinson in his book The Backchannel.

5. So what is a presentation good for?

So you’ve scaled down your ambitions as to what your presentation will achieve in terms of information transfer. What can you achieve with a presentation?

A presentation is a taster for what you have to share. It can raise awareness of your topic. It can provoke different ways of thinking about an issue. It can inspire and motivate.

And it’s one of the best possible ways of achieving those things.

I know I should edit mercilessly, but the dilemma is that I’m often presenting fairly controversial points of view, or unorthodox (but proven) approaches, and so I know what all the objections or questions will be, and I try to build those into the presentation. I just don’t seem to be able to control the urge to “give more.”
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15 Comments

  1. I’ve been in the process of discovering this for myself, and I’m so glad you wrote about it and validated my experience. Your suggestions are excellent. Thank you for adding value to my world.

  2. Hi Michele
    I’ve found that a number of people, who are otherwise excellent speakers, struggle with having too much content. I’m glad you’ve found the suggestions helpful.
    Olivia

  3. Good points here, Olivia.

    I especially like your thought to think of your presentation as just the beginning of your relationship with the people in your audience.

    You might want to sell workshops, consulting, a book, or a keynote presentation.

    Limit the supporting points of your theme to three or five, telling a personal story to support each of them.

    Also, to check that your audience is ‘Getting It!’, constantly take their temperature.

    Look at their facial expressions and body language. Even periodically ask, “Does that make sense?” If it doesn’t, restate your point in a different manner, or tell another personal story to support that point.

    Thanks!

    If

    • Thanks Fred, for your contribution. Olivia

      • Thanks a lot for the wonderful information regarding presentations. I have been to a number of train the trainer programs and now I’m learning more from you. More power.

  4. Olivia
    I think we also need to consider that people have different preferences for their learning styles so when we sit down to create a presentation, we will tend to create a presentation that suits our way of thinking / learning. Certain people prefer ‘more data’ and can almost never be happy that they have not received enough information before they take action. Other people prefer top level information – big picture thinking. Short, sharp and salient points only.

    As a presenter, we need to think about the audience first. If they are a group which are going to want more information, prepare an info pack, a blog, a download so that they can fulfill their research requirements.

    Another good technique is asking yourself how could I deliver this presentation in one minute, five minutes, ten minutes etc to ensure the key messages are distilled.

    All the best,
    Warwick John Fahy
    Author, The One Minute Presenter

    Related article:
    Taglines with word pictures
    http://www.oneminutepresenter.com/2010/04/product-launch-like-an-executive-memorable-product-launches-part-2/

    • Thanks Warwick for your contribution.
      I agree that some people like to get the big picture and others want to delve into the details.

      In most audiences you’re likely to get a mixture of both (I’ve found even audiences of auditors have big-picture people amongst the detail people). For example, say you’re presenting to a senior management team, the CEO is likely to be a big picture person, the CFO is likely to be a details person (this is a generalization and not necessarily true). It’s useful to think about how you can cater to both their needs. As you’ve pointed out the way to cater for the needs of the detail person is to give them access to additional information.

      Your suggestion of having a one-minute, five-minute and ten-minute version of your presentation is very useful for gaining clarity.

      Olivia

  5. I find this very interesting and take the point that a presentation is not the way to transfer information. I teach law to lawyers and the students expect to leave a session with me knowing the law they came in to find out about. Consequently my slides are full of information (some informartion now siphoned off to background materials). How would you recommend transferring large amounts of information? many thanks

    • Hi Vicky
      Aah…lectures. I went to law school so I know the problem. A good book to read is “What’s the Use of Lectures?” Donald Bligh.

      The best way to get large amounts of information into your brain is by self-study at your own pace and in way that works for you. But the guidance of a good teacher who shows you where to look, gives you the big picture, and intrigues you and motivates you to delve deeper by yourself, is invaluable.

      Olivia

      • Hi Olivia,
        I agree with you on that point. To be a great teacher, you need to show the road to the knowledge like a tourist guide. For the students are more important to learn, how can I get access to the knowledge and where I can find it (A big picture). As Lao Tzu said: “Give a Man a Fish, Feed Him For a Day. Teach a Man to Fish, Feed Him For a Lifetime”

        Jing

        • Thanks Jing, that’s an eloquent way of putting it.

          Olivia

  6. “Just because you say it doesn’t mean they will get it.”

    This is such a simple yet powerful realization.

    We must acknowledge the brutal reality that our audience might remember only one thing from our presentation.

    But it’s liberating to realize that you’ll have opportunities to impact your audience after your speech, too. You won’t feel the pressure of thinking, “This is my only chance! I have to change the world in the next seven minutes by moving my mouth!”

  7. In a broader sense, I agree with your suggestions.

    However, when a publicly-traded company gives a presentation, it is an opportunity to present information to existing and potential investors. An opportunity to dig deep into value proposition.

    I’m not taking about 15-20 minute presentations in front of an angel investor. I’m talking about Wall Street analysts and fund managers who participate on conference calls/webcasts to get the story behind the most recent quarterly or year-end results.

    • Hi Joann
      If the audience actively want and can absorb that level of detail, then it’s not information overload. If they are as fascinated by the topic as you are, then there will be a match. Another example might be a scientific conference where a group of scientists will plunge into mega detail on one particular hypothesis.

      More often though the presenter is more fascinated by the detail, than the audience – there is a mismatch – and that’s when information overload can occur.

      You might also find this article of interest http://www.speakingaboutpresenting.com/content/overview-presentation/

      Olivia

  8. Totally agree with your suggestion… Very nice post and good information here… Thanks for posting that….

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