One of the most common presentation content mistakes I see is to give too much information. Depending on your perspective you might also call it too much value! It’s very easy – even for experienced speakers – to equate information with value.
And we can do this in every day interactions and meetings too – this sometimes urgent need we have, to show or share what we know. When we’d be better to step back and shut up! To allow space for the information to breathe and be absorbed…and maybe to let other people’s voices be heard instead of ours.
A presentation isn’t the best way to deliver a lot of information, it’s actually very inefficient. A good presentation is about communicating something which needs you there as the speaker, using your voice and delivery style to get across. It shouldn’t be about an info dump. But content overload – and overwhelm – is still horribly common.
Why put so much content in?
When I talk to clients particularly in the corporate world, it often comes down to “here’s my information – look at how much work I’ve done…” or “I need to cover all bases here, so everything has to go in!”.
And if you’re a new speaker, it may be insecurity that pushes you to prove yourself by trying to add everything that you know. When I started giving presentations and running workshops, I definitely crammed too much in. Partly out of uncertainty – and partly because I was genuinely so excited to share what I’d learned, to try and help people.
When this happens, you tend to give too much background content, because you’re more riveted by the details of your topic than your audience is. And you’re often going to have a variety of audience members. Some will never be happy unless you give huge amounts of data, while others are looking for the big picture. And of course it also depends what level of management you’re presenting to, and their role in the organisation. So it’s a balancing act.
But overwhelm and too much information is never going to serve you well.
Persuasion research and why too much information goes wrong
Research on persuasion techniques too, shows us that if we try and take in too many points, our ability to remember them goes down dramatically for all of them. So you might give three points – that’s great, and a really common number of points in a presentation. If you then go on and add another three, recall in your audience’s brains doesn’t just drop off for points four five and six. It drops for every single point that you’ve made.
And I sometimes see presentations, where what comes across from the speaker is a sense of “I’ll let you wade through this pile of content to work out what my points are, and then come to your own conclusions!”
If you overwhelm your audience and they have to ferret through your content to find what you promised them, they’ll switch off and not even attempt it – that’s where you’ll see daydreaming and glazed expressions kick in. Or they’ll stick with you if they feel they have to, but they’re probably not going to come to the conclusions that you want them to, by the end.
So what can you do? Some suggestions:
Work out your top key message. If you could only stand up and tell the audience one thing, what would that one thing be? Then expand from there. But ideally only up to…
…three points. The ‘rule of three’ works. Our brains find three points easy to remember and digest, so long as you give each point enough space to breathe.
You can push it to five points if you absolutely have to, but that’s really the maximum. And as I said earlier, audience recall will drop dramatically with each additional point.
It’s also important to balance data and facts with an example, analogy or story. Doing this takes care to create, and time to deliver – you won’t be able have too many points, or you’ll run out of time.
So remember: a presentation isn’t the best way to deliver a lot of information. We may assume – or hope – that the audience is with us, taking it all in. The reality is that they’re not. So let’s not make it even harder for them.