How much text on a slide is too much?

Minimalist slide

It’s surprising how many presenters equate loads of text on a slide with effective information transfer. Some people believe that if they include every last scrap of data on the subject they’re presenting that their audience will become as knowledgeable as they are. News flash: it doesn’t work.

People do not attend presentations to read, they do so to learn. And you are the teacher.

In Don’t Make Me Think, required reading for anybody who deals in information design, Steve Krug writes about the attention span of a typical Web user. It’s minimal. People often visit Web sites with a specific purpose in mind: learning more about a product, getting somebody’s contact information, and comparing prices, for example. They don’t want to mine for information, it needs to be readily available and immediately apparent to the most casual observer. So Web designers must make it easy for people to accomplish these tasks. This book explains how it’s done.

The same principle is true for PowerPoint. You have to make your message really obvious to your audience. When you cram tons of text onto a slide you are making people work too hard because instead of listening to you they’re reading. The slow readers will be frustrated if you advance the slide too soon and the fast readers will be waiting for you to catch up. Either way, you’re shifting focus away from the main reason people have for being in the room: listening to you.

Here are two popular rules for PowerPoint design to get you started on the concept of Less is More.

  • The Takahashi Method: Invented by Japanese computer programmer Masayoshi Takahashi, this style is characterized by stark white slides with large black text like the slide at the top of this page. There is only room for a few words, so once the audience has read them all of the attention must focus on the presenter. Read Garr Reynold’s blog post, Living large: “Takahashi Method” uses king-sized text as a visual, for more information.
  • The 10/20/30 Rule: Marketing evangelist Guy Kawasaki came up with this formula for making PowerPoint presentations easier for an audience to view. 10: The optimal number of slides in a presentation / 20: The number of minutes your presentation should last / 30: The minimum point size of text on each slide. Read Guy Kawasaki’s blog post, The 10/20/30 Rule of PowerPoint for more details.

These rules are not hard-and-fast and there may be some instances where you need to have more than two words on a slide or ten slides in a presentation. But keep them in mind and always strive for simplicity. Your audience will thank you.

Your Turn

Do you use lots of text on your slides? If so, why? Has either the Takahashi Method or Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 Rule changed the way you create slides?


2 Responses to How much text on a slide is too much?

  1. Rob says:

    I teach Geography at a Community College, I have been very aware from the beginning of less is more. Yet for complicated processes with multiple steps like how volcanoes are created I have been including too much text; even though I whittled each step down to the minimum text to explain it, when you list them all it adds up. How do you handle showing processes with 4+ steps? After reading this and listening to Death By Powerpoint I think maybe have one anchor slide that outlines the process and break each step up into a separate slide? But is the anchor slide unreadable?

    • lmfdesign says:

      Rob, that’s an excellent question. Complicated processes need to be broken down into separate, smaller steps so that people will understand them. If you’ve ever assembled anything from IKEA, you’ll see that all of their instructions are pictorial so that they can be understood by everyone, regardless of what language they speak. The same goes for LEGO instructions, which are so effective that my 9-year-old son was able to assemble a model that contains over 1,300 pieces without any help.

      (Maybe it’s true for all products that come from companies who spell their name in all caps, who knows?)

      Your example of volcano formation could be shown pictorially and your verbal explanation could replace all of the text that would otherwise go on the slide. It seems to me that the students would internalize your message more if they had to take their own notes, rather than read what you have put on the slide.

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