Four Questions to Help Ruthlessly Cut Your Presentation

If you’re a regular speaker, trainer, or sales professional you have your “deck.” It’s like a stump speech for a politician. It’s the go-to set of slides you modify and adjust for every speaking engagement.

Are you ready for some hard truth? Anecdotally, we’ve all seen a vast number of poorly designed presentations. If that holds true, there is a high likelihood your deck has problems. It’s too long, too text-heavy and not persuasive. How do I know? I don’t. Maybe you’re one of the rare ones with a deck inspired by the likes of Garr Reynolds or Nancy Duarte. But hey! We all need a reality check now and then. So, here’s an exercise to help you review your deck and ruthlessly evaluate the value of each slide.

Do a “save as” on your deck and let's run through your slides one at a time. As you review each slide, ask these four questions:

  1. Does this information make my case?
  2. Can I memorize this information?
  3. Can I move this information to a handout?
  4. Would a visual make this information more memorable?

Be objective. Think about each slide from the perspective of your audience. Your answers should result in three outcomes: you delete the slide, you rework the slide, or you keep the slide as-is. If you decide to delete the slide, just do it—hit the delete key. If you decide to rework the slide, then draw a big red box or circle on the slide and come back to it later.

Question 1 - Does this information make my case?

Imagine you’re a lawyer building a case. You have to present a sound and convincing case to the jury (your audience). As you review your slides imagine an opposing lawyer standing up and yelling “Objection your honor! Relevance?” Can you justify the relevance of this slide? Does it help build a convincing case for the audience? To use another metaphor, think of your presentation as a movie script. Screenwriters will tell you that each scene needs to advance the plot. Does this slide advance the story you are telling?

Question 2 - Can I memorize this information?

Do you remember the first few minutes of every Star Wars film, when the prologue text crawls up the screen into infinite space? Imagine how boring those movies would be if the entire story was told that way—with two hours of scrolling text. If you’re looking at a slide full of bullets and text then you’re looking at your speaker notes. You know this material cold. Do you expect your audience to read along with you? Consider deleting sub-bullets and “speak to” the information from memory (with a little help from your notes). Bullet points should be one or two words long—they’re just data points to visually aid your audience.


Question 3 - Can I move this information to a handout?

There is another possibility when looking at a slide crammed with text. This may be an occasion for a handout. A great example is a tips and tricks slide. If you have a long list of tips and tricks (or dos and don’ts) consider moving them to a handout and making it available to your audience. Let them follow along while you review the content. Best of all, your audience will really appreciate the practical takeaway.

Question 4 – Would a visual make this information more memorable?

Assume your audience has limited short-term memory—because they do. How can you make information more memorable? The first thing, of course, is to simplify everything. The best way to present memorable information is to present less of it.

The human brain can handle about three things at a time (four tops)*. So lower your expectations on how much information you can memorably convey. Finally, think about enhancing your words with one visual. Notice, I said one visual. Again, keep it simple. All of the human brains in your audience are equipped to process visual information quickly (two-thirds of our brains are dedicated to processing visual information). When you see an opportunity to add a visual—do it. Visuals increase memorability and arouse emotions that can influence and inspire your audience.

* George A. Miller published a paper setting the magic number at seven, plus or minus two, often referred to as Miller’s Law.

So how’d you do? Did you delete some slides? Are looking to rework, redesign and add visuals? This approach requires an honest evaluation of your work. You may end up with a lean and memorable deck, but you also have more memorization and handout preparation added to the bargain. But I challenge you to give it a try. Evaluate your deck ruthlessly. Next time you speak; take the edited version for a test drive. And don’t forget to practice.

Michael CampbellComment