PowerPoint: Why less is more

(MoneyWatch) Ever since the desktop publishing revolution in the 1990s, when ordinary folks could create newsletters, brochures, flyers, and other documents easily and cheaply on a PC, there's been a school of thought that more is better. More fonts, more graphics, more text. Nowhere is that trend more apparent -- and more misguided -- than in PowerPoint presentations.

Experts agree that busy slides are the enemy of comprehension and retention, yet far too many people continue to pack slides with too many details. You might remember a couple of years ago when the U.S. Army declared overwrought PowerPoint slides to be America's No. 1 enemy. Well, busy PowerPoint slides are still a problem, and only you can solve it.

Here's the problem: Your audience can only do one thing at a time well. They can either listen to you talk, or they can read the slides you're projecting. Not both. Harvard Business Review's Nancy Duarte judges PowerPoint presentations by applying the "glance test," saying that it should take no more than three seconds for viewers to intellectually process and comprehend a slide. Any longer and they're going to be reading your slides, not hearing your message.

How do you ensure that your slides are glance test-compatible? Here are a few tips to keep in mind the next time you build a PowerPoint presentation:

Your slides should not regurgitate what you're saying aloud. As a former presentation coach, I can't emphasize enough that slides should contain just a few bullets or a simple visual that help clarify or summarize what you're saying. You should never treat a PowerPoint deck like giant notecards, in which you simply turn to the screen and read the text that's projected there. Seep it short and simple, with your oral presentation expanding on and clarifying what's on screen.

Streamline and summarize. Continuing the theme, be sure that your bullet points are just that -- short bullets. If your three points are short paragraphs, trim them down until they are sentence fragments that encapsulate what you're talking about rather than express complete thoughts. But, you object, the deck needs to be a complete set of notes for people who missed the presentation. No, it doesn't. That's confusing the purpose of a PowerPoint deck and overloading to the point that it doesn't do anything well.

Simplify the visuals. Strip the slides down to their bare essence. Use a PowerPoint theme so you can stick with just one or two fonts; minimize your use of images and animations; turn off distracting transitions; keep backgrounds simple, so text is easy to read; use as much white space as possible. And do you really need your corporate logo on every slide?

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