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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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  • Paul Fountaine

    I have to agree with Chris. How many presentations have you personally attended where 42 (or worse, more than 42) slides were used, and you came away with anything but the thought "why did I agree to sit through this!".

    If you have more than a handful of points to make, you're probably being lazy. Not always, but most times. Telling a great story doesn't take slides, it takes a great story.

    My vote is no slides until you can prove to me that without a slide your point cannot be made. Otherwise, 3 slide maximum. Ok, maybe 5. Ten if you're giving away free money.

  • Jeff Ogden

    The number of slides is not all important, but the way the slides are presented. Ask yourself a question? If I was not presenting them, would someone understand my slides? You might think you need self-explanatory slides, but you don't. You need simple and entertaining slides that tell a story. Need to show a 42% increase? How bout a simple 42% sloping up? Use pictures and images. Keep it simple. Tell a story. Your audience will thank you.

    Jeff Ogden, President
    Find New Customers

  • Chris Reich

    I hate to disagree, but 42 slides is never appropriate. The first question to ask is not how many slides is the right number, it's whether the use of slides is necessary. While not easy, if you present your material dynamically without slides you'll certainly prove to be distinctive. Can you make impact with a demonstration? It's possible. Can you tell a story? That's far more memorable than 42 slides will be.

    Now, think of this. If required by law to use only one slide to hammer home your point, what would you put on that slide? Would you go with supporting data or a powerful image?

    Put PowerPoint aside and focus on the point you need to make. Write it down as clearly and starkly as you can.

    Now, look at those 42 slides. Does every one of them contribute directly and powerfully to making your point? Are you sure?

    What comes from you, because you believe, will have far more impact than what you put on a slide.

    Next comes imagery. Images make impact when accompanied by your words. And last, but never unfortunately least, are word slides. Bullet lists are well named in that they kill interest.

    Finally, don't read any of your slides. Speaking while people are reading obliterates the impact of the words.

    Chris Reich,

  • Kit Eaton

    42 slides---how can anyone complain? Surely that's the Ultimate Number to use? ;)
    Seriously though, Dan's explanation is pretty close to the ball. I used to regularly make large presentations for M&A issues, and when $$$$$s are at stake you want to get it right. The presentation itself *isn't* the slide pack--it's the story you're trying to tell. Slides are like chapter markers or illustrations in that story. They help you tell it, so you can use as many as you need. But we used to limit the words--no more than 20ish per slide in total, large font, heavy on the graphics (which we kept clean, nay spartan so they were easy to digest).