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Why So Few Use PowerPoint Correctly

September 20, 2004

Filed under: education — Terry Wohlers @ 14:48

When was the last time you sat through a PowerPoint presentation and you were bored to tears with a seemingly endless number of bullets and words on the screen? Chances are pretty good that it was the last time you attended a presentation. Why do presenters use so many bullets and words in a single slide? My conclusion is this: Speakers can very quickly create bullets with PowerPoint and it’s much easier to create words than it is to find relevant pictures and illustrations. Also, a detailed set of words gives the speaker a sense of security in the event that they forget what to say. This is especially true among inexperienced presenters.

When I was teaching at Colorado State in the early 1980s, I learned a very basic but important rule to using slides. (Back then, we used actual 35 mm slides.) Keep the number of bullets and words to a minimum. I don’t recall the exact maximum, but it was about five bullets, no more than eight words per bullet, and a maximum of 20 words per slide. Fewer are better. I’ve done my best to follow this rule and I know that a few other speakers have done the same. Some of the most powerful speakers use slides that contain only one or two words and interesting pictures and other visuals to support the point they are making. It may be a cliché, but a picture really is worth a thousand words. Visuals open up a wider bandwidth to other functions of the brain and this leads to improved understanding and higher order thinking.

So the next time you create a presentation, remember how painful it can be to view a slide containing hundreds of words. The human brain can retain only about seven pieces of information at once, so be selective with what you share. And if individuals at the back of the room can’t see it, you’re wasting their time and yours. Spend the extra time to organize a presentation that everyone in the room will enjoy and keep those bullets and words to a minimum.