You. Yes, you. You're using too much text on your slides!
You! Yes, you. You're using too much text on your slides!
A lesson from my graduate psychometrics course has stuck with me over the years. We were talking about how to develop response options for a scale. He asked us:
Let's say you were asked to rate how often you weighed yourself. Your options are rarely, sometimes, and a lot. How often would you need to weigh yourself for you to choose "a lot?"
Before I tell you my answer, I want to know how YOU would answer that question. How often would you need to weigh yourself for you to choose "a lot"?
We all knew what the point of this exercise was, so no one was surprised that we all had different answers. My answer was "once a month." I was on the far end (less frequent) compared to my fellow students--most others said "weekly" or "daily." One person even said "more than once a day."
The same thing happened when I asked my Facebook group this question (p.s. you should totally join!). Responses ranged from "daily" to "more than a couple times a week" to "Half of the week" to "every other day." Then one smart woman skipped right to the heart of the matter and suggested I change the rating scale to be more specific & it turned into a thread about making a better scale (hehe, I LOVE my FB group!).
This is an important reminder that we often interpret the same word, concept, or phrase in vastly different ways.
I've noticed the same thing when it comes to the phrase "too much text" when talking about presentation slide design.
Defining "Too Much Text"
If you do a search for presentation design tips, "don't add too much text" is usually top of the list (and one of the rare occasions I agree with internet advice about presentation design).
And when I talk to people about slide design, most agree with me that "too much text" on a slide is a bad thing or commiserate with me that "other people" use too much text. Yet, when I look at their slides, there's WAY too much text on them!
A big reason for this is that "too much text" is both subjective and relative. Maybe, I thought to myself upon this reflection, it was time for me to get more concrete about what *I* meant by "too much text."
So I created a rating system, which I'm calling the Banish All That Text Scale, or BATTS.
0 = OMG please end my suffering
1 = Death by powerpoint
2 = Le Sigh, I'm bored
3 = Okay, not bad!
4 = Stellar slide!
Real Life Slide Examples & Their Scores
I'm going to use real life examples of slides I've seen and score them using the highly-scientific BATTS.
OK well, obviously I changed the actual text and design a little bit so these aren't identifiable. But, I kept the same word count and font size, used a similar template design when they did, and matched the text to the level of detail they initially provided.
FYI: Because tone is hard to portray through text, I want to be clear that I'm not shaming or making fun of anyone. Everyone has to start somewhere. I've looked back on my own slides and laughed at them or thought "wow, what was I thinking?!" I just think it's important to be able to compassionately laugh at ourselves once and a while. This is my way of adding a little humor and silliness to the topic (probably a coping mechanism for all my work on domestic violence). Not everything needs to be talked about in a serious way, and presentation design is one of those things.
SCORE 0 -- OMG Please End My Suffering
This is an example based on the WORST webinar I've ever attended. This person literally pasted their entire speech--word for word--onto the slides. Sure there were some visuals, but they were tiny and used inappropriately. There was a custom template, but they were dark with light text and felt like clutter on top of already-cluttered slides. The experience was so painful I ended up minimizing the screen and pretended it was podcast, which of course meant I started "multi-tasking" (i.e., doing other stuff) and don't remember half of it. Too bad, because it seemed like good content.
SCORE 0 -- OMG Please End My Suffering
This slide didn't stand a chance to do well on my rating scale. I recommend you only do 1-3 points per slide, and this one has 10. Instant deal breaker--that's way too much crammed onto one slide. Plus, there are tons of words on this slide. 76 words, to be exact. Each of these bullets could easily be cut down by half.
ACTION ITEM: After you read this post, start doing word counts on your slides. You're in the danger zone starting at around 40 words.
In terms of design, the heading is center aligned. The bullet points are blocks and another color so they stand out too much. A default template is used and that line adds nothing of value to the slide so it's just clutter. The heading was formatting using some type of Word Art, which is outdated. Finally, the body text was a size 22, when the minimum size I recommend is 30.
SCORE 0 -- OMG Please End My Suffering
Here's another one that is similar to the previous example, but a more distracting template was used and the font was actually a size 12.
Size. TWELVE font.
Even for a webinar where people are close to their monitors, a size 12 is really hard to read. And look at those bullets -- they're basically full sentences. That's a big no-no.
SCORE 1 -- Death By Powerpoint
Okay so this one is slightly better...slightly. We at least have a larger font size and only 5 bullet points. That's still too many bullets and most of them are complete sentences when they should just be a few key words each. And the bullets are large, bright, and stand out too much so they are distracting. Remember, the decorations in templates don't count as visuals so this really is still a wall of text.
SCORE 2 -- Le Sigh, I'm Bored
Ok. We finally dropped the template kind of...there was a small image but it wasn't too distracting, so that gives this slide an automatic boost. Plus, even though there are still too many bullet points, they at least only take up 1 line, which reduces that feeling of looking at a giant wall of text.
Oh, and that full citation? Get rid of it. The text is too small and the audience doesn't need to SEE that citation in the moment. Prepare a handout of references or have one ready and offer to email them to anyone who wants them.
I would prefer to see a slide like this over any of the ones I've shown before because it's pretty clean and simple. But, it's a little bit too simple. It's just a bunch of numbers thrown at you, none of which you'll remember later on.
SCORE 2 -- Le Sigh, I'm Bored
This is one about as simple as the last one, which is why it gets the same score. But, this at least has a larger font size and overall less text. Plus, notice how the text in these bullet points aren't full sentences? That's more of what you should strive for when you're adding text to your slides (but there's still room for improvement!).
SCORE 3 -- Okay, Not bad!
Excellent, now we're getting somewhere! The big change here is that we have a visual, which is a huge step in the right direction. Also, notice that there are only 3 bullets! YAY! And, even better, the bullet points are key words.
So what went wrong with this one? Well, the heading is center aligned and in an odd position and it's hard to read the text because of the background. There was some clutter on the bottom with citations in a small font, but it wasn't necessarily a deal breaker.
The main problem with this slide is that the image did not make sense in relation to the text. Notice how the text is about dog training, but the image is a lake? The two don't relate at all. Sometimes being abstract is okay, you don't always have to be literal, but it still needs to relate on some level through visual depictions, emotions, metaphors, or analogies. But in this case, it's just a random image. Not good.
How to get a SCORE 4 -- STELLAR SLIDES
Now I will take this last example and show you my transformation to move it from "OK, not bad!" to "STELLAR SLIDES."
Bam. Look. At. That. Is that not a perfect image to reflect dog training? Yes, yes it is. The dog is running toward the person and the picture does not have a lot of clutter surrounding it. The colors allowed me to create a heading in a dark color, and then use a light color for the body. That establishes a nice hierarchy.
And look at how much text I used for each point: 1-2 words. That's it (and no bullets needed!). I even used a plus sign to replace "positive." Oh, and of course, the font size is large (size 46).
But there's a way to make this even more stellar. Wanna see how?
Info design strategies
The slides have minimal text so there wasn't much I had to worry about (and it was really fast to put this together), but I made sure to use left alignment & really large font size (80, in this case).
Earlier I recommended to use aim for 1-3 points per slide, and I meant it.
For the critical points (e.g., findings, call to action) in my presentation, I work really hard to use 1 point per slide. Why? because it eliminates all other distractions. See in the example above, I still used that image of a dog running to a person, but I turned that into what I call a "section" slide or transition slide. It's basically a slide that helps organize and break up the presentation. It's the "tell people what you're going to say" part of the story. Then, the next 3 shows show the same "points" but each on a separate slide.
And, I made sure to use relevant images.
Positive reinforcement was an easy one to show literally using a visual: treats! Consistency is hard to show in a static image, so I just showed a picture of a cute dog. Not every single visual needs to be 100% perfect. But, it's at least a high quality relevant photo (i.e., a dog). Patience was a fun one, because here I'm being a little more abstract. We've all seen memes of dogs making annoyed faces because they're wearing a silly costume. One underlying theme is that dogs are actually quite patient with us. So, that image of the frenchie (still a dog) wearing a silly headband seemed to portray patience really well.
Also notice how the text is easy to read? There is high contrast because all of it is placed on the blank spot in the image. I also tried to keep it consistent where the image is mostly a light background and the only object in it is the dog/s.
What do you think an audience is more likely to remember? A bullet point that said "being patient" or that adorable Frenchie wearing the headband as being "patient?"
Using a high quality, relevant photo with 1-2 will stick in everyone's minds better than bullet points.
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Thanks for reading!
Dr. Echo Rivera