9 reasons you should put words on your slides

by Olivia Mitchell

I hate bullet-filled PowerPoint slides, but neither do I advocate having no words on a slide. That’s just going to another extreme. Images and words combined are the most effective PowerPoint slide design for most technical and business presentations. Here are eleven reasons why:

1. A picture may be worth a thousand words – but it may be a different thousand words for each member of the audience. By adding a clarifying sentence you ensure that every person in your audience gets the point you wanted to make with the picture. For example, this slide could make many different points. I ensured my audience got the point with the simple sentence:

laughing audience

2. Stunning photography can be memorable – but your audience may not remember the point (are there TV ads that you love but you don’t know what they’re for?). By putting some words directly on the image you ensure that the image is linked with your point in their memory.

3. An agenda slide gives your audience a skeleton from which to hang your oral presentation.

agenda slide

4. When you’re showing data in the form of a graph or chart the audience can often get lost as they try and make sense of the data at the same time as you’re talking. A concise sentence explaining the meaning of the data will prevent that.

Attention graph with heading

5. A clear and succinct sentence expressing your key message gives your message longevity. If you say it, and an audience member didn’t quite hear it or didn’t quite grasp it…it’s gone. Having it on the slide allows them to reread it so that they can grasp it.

key message slide

6. You can also highlight the points of your presentation in the same way. This has two advantages:

  • If an audience member daydreams for a moment, they’ll be able to get back on track quickly.
  • If you’re speaking in your second (or third) language, or if your audience is listening in their second language, one clear and succinct sentence on each slide will help your audience keep track and ensures they understand your main points.

But remember, the more points you emphasize in this way, the less each one is emphasized.

7. Most audience members find it useful to be able to read, rather than have to listen, to a longish quote. Put the slide up and be silent while they read:

Clinton quote slide

8. When you’re explaining a diagram, including text labels to identify the diagram components will help audience members make sense of the diagram. This applies to simple and complex diagrams:

Comfort zone simple Kiva flowchart

9. If you’re using unfamiliar words, jargon or acronyms having them on the screen will help people grasp and remember them. If I’m giving a presentation on Kiva without slides, I have to spell out the name Kiva. It’s much easier to use a slide!

kiva logo on slide

I’d love to give you some research-based evidence to back this up, but the research focuses on the benefits of adding visuals to words, rather than adding words to visuals. That’s fair. It’s still the main battle we’re fighting when it comes to PowerPoint slide design.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Daniel E. Gold August 30, 2010 at 2:34 pm

Olivia: Kudos on a great website. As it turns out, though continents separate us, we have much in common! Like you, I am also an attorney. My passion I found was integrating litigation with content & tools designed to make us more effective attorneys. As a consultant for litigators now, my passion comes through in designing and giving great presentations and also showing others how to do the same. My “unofficial” mentors include Garr Reynolds, Nancy Duarte, Scott Schwertly, Dan Pink and Dan Roam. Each have truly showed me the power of presenting to various audiences so that the message comes across in both beautiful visuals and rich content. Also like you, my personal blog is filled with ideas on how to give powerful and meaningful presentations filled with great content, designed well, and tips on delivery.

The purpose for my response is to provide feedback on what I thought was both intriguing and insightful. I thought I would comment specifically on 2 points in your blog: 1) choosing the right visuals and 2) understanding the delicate balance in too little vs too many words on the screen.

First, without question, not everyone has a design background. I certainly don’t but through my studies, I have learned what appeals to audiences. Subtleties such as choosing the right font, the color we add, and the kind of stock art can make or break our presentation in the first 10 seconds. Garr and Nancy’s books are perfect for the non-designer.

It’s far too easy, like you had said, to just grab any visual. However, the visual can have an opposite effect than what we intended, and can even turn someone off. I’m a big fan of beautiful, crisp images. I prefer images that show emotions and are in direct harmony with my words. I also believe the image must not distract too much from our message.

That brings me to the second point: how many words do we put on the screen? I couldn’t agree more with your statement: “A clear and succinct sentence expressing your key message gives your message longevity.” the worst presentations are latent with 12-point font and bullet points. On the other extreme are those presentations that have one or two words. Depending upon the presentation – such as Pecha Kucha – it may be appropriate.

I think the question becomes what do we even need a PowerPoint presentation for? What’s the purpose? Is it to remind us of talking points or is it to educate the audience? Studies are pretty well documents that the human brain cannot concentrate on our words and read the words on the screen at the same time. Take a look at Dr. John Medina’s, “Brain Rules” for more. In my opinion, we are the main actor telling our story that we should know so well. The supporting actors are the visuals and the words on the screen. The balance between words and visuals should be enough to convey the point but not too much so as to confuse the audience on who the lead actor is in your presentation.

Kudos again on a thought provoking article and I do hope former lawyer turned presentation gurus like us stick together!

Cheers!
Daniel

Reply

Olivia Mitchell September 1, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Wow! Daniel, thanks for adding so much value with your comment. We also share the same mentors.

Olivia

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Mike Slater September 1, 2010 at 3:46 am

Olivia

A good post as usual.

I think point 7 is a good one that most speakers should take note of. I agree that if a speaker wants to use quotations, it’s better to let the audience read it for themselves with the speaker bringing out the key point afterwards.

I’ve just been watching a video of a recent talk by Garr Reynolds posted on the Duarte Design blog (http://blog.duarte.com/2010/08/could-you-present-naked-garr-inspires-you-to-try/). I’m a fan of his approach and its good to see how he puts his ideas into practice. Generally it’s a good presentation but even he falls into the trap of reading out lengthy quotations.

Reply

Olivia Mitchell September 1, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Thanks Mike

Garr is a hero of mine too. I haven’t watched his presentation at Duarte yet so I’ll set aside some time to watch it later.
Olivia

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kishor January 2, 2011 at 4:05 am

I found this site today I like it much and want to be the regular member of your site.

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Harry Wilson September 19, 2012 at 11:25 pm

Hi Olivia, great blog! I noticed at the end you were talking about research into this, well we recently have done with UCLan. Here is the link to a short summary! https://www.uclan.ac.uk/schools/psychology/files/UCLAN_SoP_KT_m62_Summary_Report_(July_2012).pdf

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