Saved From Death By PowerPoint

This blog was originally published on Forbes as Saved From Death By PowerPoint on Friday, April 7, 2017.

An influential Silicon Valley Venture Capitalist called me recently to refer one of his startup companies to me for presentation coaching. He began his call by saying, “If I die young, the cause of death will be overexposure to PowerPoint!”

He was paraphrasing what is commonly known as “death by PowerPoint,” the fatal condition caused by presentation slides overloaded with excessive data and text. The commonly accepted cure for this universally chronic malady is architect Mies van der Rohe’s surgically sage advice: Less Is More. I propose a more appropriate term: “minimally invasive slides,” because it shifts the advice to the point of view to the audience.

Just think: when a dense slide appears during a presentation, the audience’s eyes immediately dart over to the screen to look at the new image. This move is completely involuntary. They can’t not look at the new image. A daily example of this reflexive dynamic is the email notification that pops up on your computer screen while you’re working on an application. Whether you are on email, a browser, or a document, you can’t not look at the pop-up. Next time that happens, try not looking at it. Impossible.

That same dynamic occurs when a new slide appears on the screen during a presentation, except that the screen—and therefore the move—is magnified, so the effect is more pronounced. If the slide is densely packed with information, it will take the audience more time to look at and process the new image; the denser the data, the longer the processing time, the longer processing time, the less the audience hears of what the presenter is saying.

And then it gets worse. The presenter, already nervous about being the center of attention, sees that that the audience’s eyes are still looking—often squinting—at the screen, trying to process the information. At that moment, the presenter thinks, “I’m losing them!” and the nervousness spikes. In response, the presenter starts speaking faster and louder. Drawn by sudden the change in the presenter’s voice, the audience’s eyes dart back to the presenter—but they are not yet finished processing the data, so they dart back to look at the screen and then back again to the presenter. The presenter sees this rapid eye movement and becomes even more nervous.

You can see where this is going. Solve the death spiral with minimally invasive slides.

Legions of consultants have offered volumes of advice about how to design simple slides, so let me add just one simple overarching solution for that most common of all business slides, the bullet chart: design all your text as headlines rather than sentences. Sentences contain all the parts of speech that make them grammatically complete: articles, conjunctions, and prepositions; headlines are composed mainly of nouns and verbs and the occasional adjective. Check the online or hard copy of your favorite periodical today or any day and you’ll see what I mean.

Make it easy for your audience with minimally invasive slides—and they will make it easy for you.

Photo Credit: By MarkJaysonAranda (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

This blog was originally published on Forbes as Saved From Death By PowerPoint on Friday, April 7, 2017.