I recently attended a human trafficking conference in the United States. Besides being an excellent opportunity for me to learn how I, as a speech coach, might better serve the community working to end this phenomenon, this conference was a virtual smorgasbord of speakers and their successful and, well, sometimes not so successful presentations. I’d like to point out a few of the most common mistakes I saw regarding the use of text on slides and give some suggestions as to how you can do better...because I know you can.
Mistake #1 Too much text on the slide.
At one point during a break-out session, a woman looked up at the screen behind her, saw it full of text, sighed, and said, “Well, you can read that.” The audience laughed, and I thought, “Exactly! Who wants to read a giant screen full of text!?”
I know that everyone understands that too much text is to be avoided at all costs. Think root canals and bad dates. But for whatever reason - creating better alternatives can be time consuming, it doesn’t look like too much material when you’re staring at it on your computer screen, and/or “everyone else” puts up text dense slides - too much text continues to be a problem.
So how much is too much? Here are some examples....
See this one above? It's beautiful, right? Nice template, good colors, no? Yes..but no. Even though it's pretty, there's WAY too much text. Now, go ahead - puff out your chest as you say "I would never do THAT!" Not so fast - what if it was a law...or an important quote? Still no? Good. And to the rest of you feeling guilty, no worries, hang tight and I'll show you how to fix it. :)
This one above and to the right is slightly better because it has a fun graphic. But there's still a LOT of small text that no one will want to read. And they definitely don't want to listen to you reading it.
So how can you avoid this common mistake?
Solution A Display only words/short phrases, and speak exclusively from those, as in the edited version below. This is by far the best solution. It ensures that you’re talking to your audience, and not to the screen (see Mistake #4 below) and that you’re not reading your speech.
Do you see how few details there are? That’s a good thing. Your audience will read the whole slide in 3 seconds, and then turn their attention back to you, waiting to hear what you have to say. That's a good thing, too!
What if you don't know your speech well enough to only use words or short phrases, or you're really worried about forgetting? In that case, display just a few words/phrases per slide, talk off of those as much as possible, but refer to printed notes as necessary. Obviously, the more prepared you are, the less you’ll have to refer to notes. But there’s no shame in refreshing your memory now and then by taking a look. You just don’t want to be reading those notes verbatim. Remember, it’s a speech, not a reading.
Mistake #2 Displaying a slide with a lot of text and not walking your audience through it.
There are times (keep them infrequent) when you feel that displaying a paragraph of text (large font, easy to read, not TOO much) is justifiable. Perhaps it’s a magnificent quote, a law, or an explanation that you really don’t want to paraphrase because it’s so clear as is. Displaying it will help people follow along (especially those like me who’d rather see it than hear it), and allows you to highlight certain parts. For example, this quote by Ira Glass of This American Life.
If you want to use a slide like this, you need to proceed with care.
Step 1: Preview the slide before you display it. Say something like, “I’d like to read you what Ira Glass says about a story,” or “I’d like to read you this quote from an interview with Robert McKee about brand storytelling,” or “Here’s what Section 2 of the copywrite act, 1968, says on this topic.”
Step 2: Start reading as soon as you display the text, because you know what? That’s what your audience is going to do, whether you’re ready or not. Yep! They’re going to start reading immediately. The only way to make them stop and listen to you again is to take down the slide.And that would be rude.
Reading aloud also allows you to place the emphasis where you want it. But, if reading aloud freaks you out, no problem. Just say “take a moment to read this and then I want to make a few comments.” Then stop talking. Seriously. Hush.
When you’ve finished reading aloud, or, in the second case, when most people are done reading on their own, go back and highlight and/or explain in more depth what’s most important to you about this particular passage. Your audience will be listening again, because they’ve already read it.
Mistake #3 Talking to the slides.
If you focus most of your attention toward the slides, so will the audience. This creates a disconnect between you and them, and makes it harder for the audience to identify with you, empathize with you, be persuaded by you, or whatever it is that you’re trying to get them to do.
Step 1 Display just a few words/phrases per slide. (Is that starting to sound familiar? I am indeed beating the dead horse now.) Yes, this is another good reason not to put too much text on your slide. Fewer words creates less of a temptation to keep looking back at the slide.
Step 2 Help yourself make eye contact with your audience.
I know it’s hard to look people in the eye when you are standing in front of an audience. Sometimes they’re frowning, sometimes they’re looking at their phone, and sometimes they look bored. It can all be pretty disconcerting. On top of that, maybe you feel self-conscious, nervous, or just plain terrified.
If you’re worried about being able to maintain eye-contact, I suggest that at the beginning of your talk, or even before, you find a few friendly faces and concentrate on them. Or ask a friend (or two!) to sit in the middle of the audience and smile encouragingly. (I’ve done this many times and it works wonders.) Often times the friendly faces give you just enough courage to look around the room more and incorporate eye contact with more people.
So that's it - the three most common mistakes surrounding the use of text in a presentation and how to solve them. Remember, less is more. Your audience will thank you.
If you have a slide deck that you’d like to get some feedback on, go here and we’ll get right to work.