I was working with a new executive client yesterday who had a list of questions for me including a burning one “how many slides should I use? I’ve got 62 at this point.” He has an hour-long 5 year business plan presentation to give to his entire company in a couple of weeks.
I’m often asked this question and obviously clients would love a definitive answer… however the true answer is “it depends”. (But probably not 62!)
A big point to remember around this whole ‘slide’ topic: you are the presentation, not your slides!
Firstly: do you need slides at all?
- The first question to ask yourself around “How many slides should I use?” is “Do I need slides at all?” Too often when people start creating a presentation they simply go to PowerPoint or Keynote or whatever software they’re using, and fire it up. And I do that too – if I know that I can duplicate a previous talk and then modify to suit my new target audience. But before I even do that I always ask myself: “in this particular scenario, is it helpful to have slides, or not?”. And if I’m running a workshop, I usually have a module without them, and some modules with.
Sometimes you can have greater impact with ‘just’ you as the visual: slides may only get in the way. Especially if your message is brief, or emotionally strong, or you want the audience’s attention purely on you.
Using too many slides
The most common issue I see is over-stuffing a presentation with too many slides. And the reason for this is frequently that the presenter is using them as their own notes. Each slide is stuffed full because they don’t want to forget anything, and they haven’t had enough time to prepare. Or enough time to work out what actually needs to be in the presentation and what doesn’t. I talked about this a few years ago in my post on bad presentations.
And if your slides are so stuffed full, they could run the presentation by themselves – and by this, I mean that you’re not needed to:
- interpret the slides for the audience
- communicate a message that goes beyond what’s on the screen
…then you may as well just send out the deck and not bother with the presentation. Save everyone some time! This often happens when Word documents are transferred across into slide software. Something originally designed as a discussion document suddenly morphs into something projected – sometimes excruciatingly – onto a screen.
So that’s something to think about. (And of course I understand that your workplace culture may not allow that, or anything near it; however, it’s important to raise the question.)
Do they add, or detract?
- So you’ve decided you are going to use slides. The way I recommend to work out how many you need is to go through your presentation and for every point that you’re making – every example, every bit of data or story… ask yourself whether using a slide for each of those is going to add to the audience’s understanding and engagement…or detract from it.
If you do this regularly you’ll start to get a really good sense of what works on the screen – and what doesn’t – to help the audience. After all, your talk is aimed at the audience, not you.
When it’s good to have more slides
Another thing I commonly see is an over-stuffed slide which the presenter then spends a long time deciphering and explaining to the audience. Ask yourself if it would be a better option to split that complex slide into three or four, so that you’re building your argument or explanation as you go. This will make it much easier for the audience to understand and retain.
Summary and action steps
You are the main visual aid, not your slides.
Try not to over-stuff your slides and use them as your own notes. Create separate cue cards or use ‘presenter view’ if you’re going to be in front of your laptop.
Practise your presentation enough that you know the minimum words or images that need to be on each slide to trigger your thoughts and ideas.
For every message and example you come up with, ask yourself “will using a slide here add to, or detract from, the point I’m trying to make?”
So next time you find yourself asking “How many slides should I use?” remember: don’t get hung up on the number of slides. Focus on getting your point across clearly in a way the audience can easily understand and remember. After all, that’s what we all want.
Best wishes with your presentations!