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Made to Stick

How Many Slides Should I Put in a Presentation?

Q: Next week I'm making a presentation to some colleagues at work. (It basically outlines an approach for promoting one of our products in 2010.) My first draft of the presentation was 42 slides, and my team hit the roof. They say we should present 15 slides max. I say it's not the quantity that matters, it's the quality. What do you say?
- Maximum Verbosity

presentationDear Maximum Verbosity, you're colleagues are spiritually right and you're conceptually right. (And, by the way, that last sentence was an unprecedented and frankly ingenious advice-column hedge.) Let me explain.

Your colleagues are terrified of long, soulless presentations, so they're trying to set an arbitrary limit ("15 slides max") that will cap the pain. It's a noble instinct to prevent human suffering. That's why they're spiritually right.

But you're conceptually right about the matter of quality vs. quantity. For instance, my brother Chip and I routinely give hour-long speeches with over 100 slides. But those 100 slides have no bullets. Instead, we use lots of photos and graphics, and every now and then, we'll pluck out a key phrase or quote—e.g., "IT'S A NOBLE INSTINCT TO PREVENT HUMAN SUFFERING"—for emphasis.

There's a fork in the road when it comes to PowerPoint or Keynote presentations—you can use the visuals in one of two ways. The first approach is to use the visuals as an aid for you, the presenter. You can use them to provide structure to the talk and to remind you what to talk about. Outlines, headlines, bullets, etc.

This approach can provide a great comfort to a presenter who's not crazy about public speaking. But from the audience's perspective, it's a real bummer. It's drab and dense. It also strips control of the pace (and drama) away from the presenter, because you're letting the audience look ahead. In 10 seconds, they'll read through your outline and see everything you're going to talk about in the next 3 minutes. That makes them think they're way ahead of you, even if they're not. They'll start to do that hateful, watch-glancing, butt-shifting Antsy Dance.

The other approach is to use your PPT/Keynote as an aid to the audience. It allows you to show them things that are hard to describe verbally—for instance, the looks on your customers' faces when they use your product, or the look & feel of your new promotional materials. And it allows you to use the visuals for emphasis (Pay attention to this point!) rather than for signposting (Here's where we are in the talk).

So back to your question. If you're using the presenter-aid approach, listen to your colleagues. Keep it short. Or if you're using the audience-aid approach, hang onto those 42 slides—your audience will appreciate the visuals (unless you're showing vacation photos or lolcats, in which case refer to the point about human suffering above).

Ask Dan is a weekly column. Read last week's entry: Bringing a Potted Plant to a Presentation.

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