6 reasons you shouldn’t give an overview presentation

Garr Reynolds said you can’t go both deep and wide in a presentation. A deep presentation explores one aspect of a topic in depth, whereas a wide presentation gives an overview of the entire topic.

Deep vs wide presentation

I agree with Garr, but would go one step further – deep is better than wide (see also Jon Thomas’s post on deep vs wide). Here are six reasons why I recommend against giving an overview presentation:

1. It’s not memorable

In an overview presentation you can only cover each issue at a superficial level. The belief that mentioning an issue means that people will get it and remember it, is an illusion. People remember things when you have time to develop the issue, give them examples and explore the pros and cons. Making something sticky requires depth.

2. Nothing will stand out

When you give an overview presentation not only do you cover each issue lightly, you cover a lot of issues. That means that no one issue will stand out and your audience is likely to remember less, not more. Presentations are not a good vehicle for transferring a lot of information from one person to another. Check out this post for more reasons why you should avoid information overload: How to stop information overload in your presentation.

Both these points are supported by educational research that shows that students learn better when material is covered in depth. A study of over 8,000 college science students found that those who had studied at least one major topic in depth at high school, got better grades in college science. When Robert Frank, a professor of economics, reduced his coverage and concentrated on teaching core economic principles in depth, his students did better. Teacher websites encourage teachers to teach depth even at the expense of covering the curriculum.

3. Positions you as a generalist

Anyone can give an overview of a topic. Only an expert can deliver an in-depth exploration.

4. It’s uninspiring

An overview is rarely inspiring or motivating. An in-depth exploration of a particular aspect of a topic is more likely to inspire people to find out more about the topic.

5. It’s boring

If there’s a mix of knowledge levels in your audience, you’ll bore anyone who’s beyond beginner status and possibly beginners too. Covering material at a surface level is rarely engaging. You want your audience to be in a state of “flow”. That happens when your  material is not too easy and not too hard. For more on flow, and how to achieve it see: 7 ways to keep audience attention during your presentation.

6. It’s not efficient

Why bother with the expense and effort of a presentation to give people an overview of a topic? They can get the information much more efficiently in other ways, via a report, your organization’s intranet, a short elearning module, or surfing the internet.

There may be situations where an overview presentation is required. But before you give such a presentation make sure there’s no alternative way of delivering the information. Presentations are much more suited to covering one issue in-depth. A deep presentation is more engaging, inspiring and memorable.

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15 Comments

  1. Olivia,

    Great points. I often see these wide presentations when businesses, particularly corporations, give a “capabilities” or “overview” presentation. It touches quickly upon who they are, where they’re from, what services they provide, who they work for, and so on, but never really defines the company or talks about the proposed relationship.

    I’ve never found these presentations particularly effective because they don’t tell a story. Every company has services, customers, a management team, successful past work and a few customer testimonials. None of that really separates them from the rest. None of that tells me who they really are as people. What do they care about? How does their culture cultivate great work? What’s your story that makes you so special?

    More importantly, none of that explains how YOU are going to help ME (the prospect). Instead, I suggest finding out what keeps the prospect up at night (in regards to their business) and present a SOLUTION to that problem.

    They should be able to get all that overview stuff from your website or a downloadable 1pg overview PDF. When you speak with them, use that time to tell your story and go deep about who the company really is and how your relationship will benefit both parties.

    If you want to create a corporate overview presentation intended to be downloaded, that’s one thing. But if you have an audience, find a way to narrow it and really connect.

    Jon Thomas
    Presentation Advisors

    • Hi Jon
      I agree with you that most corporate overview presentations are a waste of an opportunity to connect with a potential client. I would go further than you and say that it’s not just a lack of a story that makes these presentations ineffective. The prospective client is not interested in your company’s story until you have shown that your company can help them. The prospective client will start asking questions about your company once they’ve decided you might be able to help. That’s the time to start telling your story.
      Olivia

  2. Hi Olivia,

    Coming from an education perspective (Educational Technology in particular) I have found that for those who are new to the field or are just beginning to entertain the possibility of using technology in their classrooms, a ‘wide’ presentation is a better option. This type of presentation allows participants to see a variety of tools that might address a particular aspect of their curriculum and will allow them to think about what they might like to delve into deeper the next time. As with any presentation (especially one coined ‘training’) a one-time exposure is never the answer. Hopefully the organizers have built in a series of follow-up events that would allow participants to explore topics of their choice in a deeper and more meaningful manner. After all, that’s what most of do with issues in our daily lives, why can’t we apply those strategies to our working lives?

    • Hi Nancy
      I’ve taken time to reflect on your comment before replying. I do agree that there are times when an overview presentation is what is required and the situation that you’ve described does seem to be one of those.
      Olivia

  3. I’d like to agree. Unfortunately, there are cases where a broad overview is necessary and merited. One key example from my little world is the annual training we run for new sales people from across the world – they come to our hq location to be introduced to the product assortment(s), the tools etc – and basically, all of those different areas require an overview presentation.

    The, hopefully, redeeming feature is that we generally odn’t to try go deep also – we very well are aware that we give them a taste of everything and offer plenty of possibilities to find out where to start digging deeper once they’re back in their daily settings.

    An obvious question – how do we design best so that it is bearable (at least as much as possible) and gets best across when we do have to introduce lots of items broadly over relatively few days?

    • Hi Ole
      The “induction” presentation is also one where the overview presentation seems unavoidable. One of the issues with an overview presentation is that it can be very abstract and so difficult for newcomers to grasp. So make it more concrete by adding lots of real-world examples.
      Olivia

  4. Olivia, your article is well written and persuasive.

    We fear that if we don’t talk about every major point related to the subject of our presentation, then we’ll be criticized for not addressing something important.

    So with good intentions, we misguidedly try to briefly touch on everything. The result is that our audience learns something substantive about nothing.

    For my next presentation, I’m going to explore three points well, rather than graze over six points badly. Thanks!

    • Thanks Kevin – your last sentence expresses what I’m trying to say in a nutshell! Go well with your presentation.
      Olivia

  5. Olivia:

    I think that you should give an overview presentation when you know both your subject and audience very well, and have discussed this in more detail in a post at my Joyful Public Speaking blog on December 1st.

    Richard

  6. Olivia,

    It’s Sunday morning and the kids are still asleep so here’s another thought-

    It’s all about knowing your audience isn’t it? If you don’t know what will ‘fit’ for them, you’re almost always forced into an overview presentation. I was working with a UK based Consumer Insight team of world renown (I think it used to be called market research) recently, and they expressed their dilemma thus

    ‘We’ve been paid £2m to research what consumers want from this client’s next car. We can’t just go back to them and say, ”Big, safe, environmentally friendly and 7 seats…”, can we…?’

    My thoughts were that the Marketing director of ‘Global gas guzzlers’ (and in my experience, most very senior clients) would want the key points, supported by as little detail as possible, but with the option of ‘going deep’ if they wanted to.

    But unless we ask, before we meet them, we don’t know… And this one habit of ‘phoning, emailing or meeting your key audience members in advance and asking them 2 things-

    1- what they want to be included (from a list if that helps them)
    2- what they don’t want to hear

    Helps enormously in engaging them, and guiding you to say less, more powerfully in less time- thereby making you stand out from the mass of people who don’t ask, and start at slide 1 and end at slide 457…. zzzzzzz

    Kids are up now demanding pancakes! Cheers

    Jim

    • Hi Jim
      Yes – asking your audience what they want from you can be critical. If you don’t know and you don’t ask, it’s like trying to find you way to a strange place without a map or direction.
      Olivia

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  9. Hi Olivia,
    nice to meet you.
    I often gives presentation about Telecommunication and I’ve been working in this field for 30 years.
    Because I am Italian, or better I’m not so fluent in English I don’t know the meaning of Power Point that literally stands for the socket where insert the plug to get electrical current.
    Is the figurative meaning “a medium to give strength to your Points”?
    Compliments for your site
    TXs a lot
    Paolo

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