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Avoiding a 'data dump'

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Most people prepare presentations by pulling a selection of slides together and then deciding what they are going to say. I can't stress strongly enough that this is the WRONG approach. It's putting the cart before the horse.

The number one rule of slide preparations is simple: YOU are the star of the show, not the the slides. They are there to support YOU and what you have to say, not the other way around.

The correct approach is: 1) decide very carefully on your objectives (see Clear Objectives); 2) write the presentation script; 3) then and ONLY then, prepare your slides. Of course, sometimes there will be slides from another presentation that you can use, and doing so will save time. But you should never just take slides from another presentation or that somebody else has prepared for you and use them uncritically.

First look very carefully at what you want to say, and then think: "What do I want to put on a slide that will help me get that point over?" The slide should contain enough information to make that point, and no more. Anything else is not only superfluous, it actually damages your chances of achieving your objectives. So take out anything that isn't necessary to make your point. It makes the slide simpler and easier to read.

Because if a slide is too 'busy', the audience's brains will get a sensory overload and can easily switch off, placing what is in front of them in the mental 'too difficult' file. The incredibly complex slide below (part of a presentation made to General McCrystal in Afghanistan) is one that received considerable attention recently in the press. Now if its objective is to demonstrate the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan, it's a good slide. Putting this slide up on screen without any detailed attempt to explain it would clearly make that point.

Powerpoint confusing slide

But one can't help thinking that far too much effort went into its creation for this to be the case. I suspect (and this is just my guess) that it's true objective was to show how clever its creator was (i.e. aren't I clever to understand something so complex and be able to show the way everything interlinks?).

The brain (and eyes) just can't concentrate on any of the content because there is too much of it, and no obvious focal point at which to start.

Whilst this is obviously an extreme case, a similar mistake is made by most presenters. They simply put too much information on their slides.

The human body has evolved to save energy, and that includes the brain. So unless it's a subject you are really interested in, anything that requires sustained effort will cause your brain to switch off. This is why many presenters lose audiences.

Some of the mistakes I'm going to highlight might seem trivial, and might only require the eyes/brain to put in slightly more effort, but a typical presentation might have 20 slides, and the cumulative effect of this effort is what causes them to switch off. Your job is to make your presentation and slides easy to follow, not difficult.

Powerpoint complex data

Take the slide to the right, showing financial information. It's the typical type of slide a Financial Director/VP might use to explain a company performance. Now they are typically so comfortable with the figures that they can glance at something like this and instantly see trends, and which are the key pieces of data.

The problem is that assume everyone else can as well. So they put up the slide, and everybody in the audience either looks specifically for the bits of data that involve them in some way, or is just confused because there's too much there.

Let's assume that the presenter's objective is to point out that while unit sales grew by 9%, revenue only grew by 5%, so revenue per unit was down 4%. He'd probably say something like, 'This slide is a bit busy, but the bit I want you to look at is at the bottom. Because while unit sales grew by 4%, ..... etc., etc." The problem is that while she wants everyone to look at the summary figures, the people involved in the manufacture of Widget A are looking at those figure, the Marketing team for Widget B is looking at those, and the salespeople responsible for Widget C are looking at those.

Powerpoint simplified data  


If you want people to look at the summary figures at the bottom, then just show those figures!

The slide to the left makes the point far more simply and clearly, without any distractions. And if you say, "But Nick ... you've got to show all the figures behind that summary," I'll say: "WHY?" Why do you?

If people need that information, give it to them at the end in a handout. It doesn't NEED to be on the slide.


  Powerpoint faded data


If you have the kind of detail-conscious boss who insists you include all the figures in the presentation, then put all the information up but then fade out all the irrelevant data so the eye is automatically drawn to the important bits, as in the slide to the right (here the objective is to point out that the cause of the falling revenue per unit is Widget B).

Remember: the objective of the slide is to make the point you want to make, not to just give data for the sake of it.



Now look at the two charts below

Powerpoint complex chart2   Powerpoint simplified chart

The one on the left is fairly typical of the type of thing you see every day. But it's unnecessarily complex. What's wrong with it? Let's assume the objective of the slide is to make the point that total revenues have grown from £60mn to nearly £160mn over a 5 year period:

  • There are too many blocks of information to tax the eyes/brain
  • The horizontal lines on the chart are distracting
  • The years 1999-2004 are duplicated; one set is redundant
  • The full years in white from a black box are distracting
  • The words 'In millions of pounds' are difficult to read
  • The fact the fiscal year ends on Dec 31 is irrelevant to the point being made
  • The individual figures for products A, B and C are unnecessary

The slide on the right demonstrates the point more effectively and is far easier to read.

And this rule also applies equally to slides which are 100% text.

Powerpoint complex text

People make two major mistakes with text.

Firstly, they write their points in full sentences. But because the human eye can read many times faster than you can speak, if you do this the audience will have read what you have to say before you've said it. So what are you there for? You might just as well have emailed them a copy of the presentation and saved everybody a lot of time and effort.

The second major mistake is to put all the information up at the same time. Apart from the fact that the slide to the left is incredibly difficult to read (alternate colors as in the slide on the right; it's much easier to read), do you really think that the audience will discipline themselves and refrain from reading points 2-4 whilst you expound on point 1? It is human nature to read everything that's on the slide. And while they're doing that, they're not listening to you; you've lost them. Plus, they now know about points 2-4, which again makes you a bit redundant.

Plus the points on the slide on the right would be presented individually as bullets. Your spoken words then expand on the bullet points, like putting meat on bones. I think a good set of slides is one where they don't really make sense without having listened to the presenter's words. I'll say it again: if the slides make sense on their own, just email the audience a copy and save everybody the time and trouble of attending the presentation.

There really is no excuse for showing all information at once; using bullets on PowerPoint is very simple. If you don't know how to do it, ask somebody.

Remember the Golden Rule: YOU are the star of the show, not the slides. They are there to support YOU, not the other way around.

So remember: my injunction to K.I.S.S. - Keep It Simple, Stupid! doesn't just apply to the words you use. It applies to your slides as well.


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