Text on slides in technical communication presentation: editing?

Subject: Text on slides in technical communication presentation: editing?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 20 Apr 2001 15:35:52 -0400

Peter Shea has been <<... editing articles for doctors. Recently, I've asked
to edit a presentation paper & the PowerPoint slides that accompany it.
While I know PowerPoint, I am unaccustomed to thinking about slide content.
Aside from suggesting that the doctors keep their bulleted lists to a
minimum, I don't know what else to suggest.>>

Where to begin? I could write a book... <g> The first thing to be aware of
is that if your doctors are anything like the researchers I've worked with
for the past 15 years, you'll be getting so many presentations at the last
possible moment that all you can do is make the best of a bad situation.
Even creating templates to standardize the presentation and teaching them
how to use the templates will only get you so far; I do highly recommend
that you create a standard template and insist that they use it, but be
aware that you're still going to have some people who are genetically immune
to the notion of consistency. So... bits of advice:

First, create a template that helps people be consistent. Define the fonts,
the positions of the text boxes, the positions of the standard graphic
elements, and so on. You can often (depending on how creatively they've
imported the text) simply apply this template to an existing presentation,
either as a whole or one screen at a time, and that saves considerable time
spent reformatting. And I do strongly recommend reformatting for visual
consistency as part of your edit; random changes in text positions, fonts,
and colors looks unprofessional and confuses viewers. One of the really nice
things about the template approach is that defining the text box locations
and the font size also imposes firm limits on just how many words you can
fit on the screen. I usually aim for an absolute maximum of 50, and fewer
words if I can manage it.

Second, edit with a particular mindset: that the audience is present to
listen to the speaker, not to read slides. That being the case, examine each
slide to see whether it _supports_ what the speaker is saying, or encourages
the audience to ignore the speaker and focus on the slide. Think of it this
way: if there's enough text on the screen, nobody has to attend the
presentation because they can ignore you and just read the slides. The main
reason for reducing the amount of text on a slide (assuming you've picked a
good, legible font size) is that it minimizes the risk of the audience
spending so much time reading the slides that they ignore what you have to
say. Typical tricks to get their attention back on the speaker involve:
- using "builds": adding one bullet point each time the speaker hits "page
down" to introduce a new point, rather than displaying all the bullets
simultaneously. Either "grey out" the previous points so that they're still
present as a mnemonic of what's been said, but so that the one highlighted
point focuses attention on the current topic, or display only one bullet per
- placing repeated elements consistently: if the company logo appears in the
bottom right corner on each slide, viewers learn to ignore it and look in
the right place for text
- minimizing text without becoming so cryptic that viewers spend more time
deconstructing the sentence than listening to the speaker

Third, if you're given a presentation that doesn't follow your template and
don't have time or permission to apply that template, stand far enough back
from the computer screen that it looks like you're sitting in the conference
hall's back row, squinting at the slides. If you can't read the computer
screen easily, the audience won't read the projected slide easily either.
Try the same thing with graphics, and particularly data graphics. Something
that works perfectly well in print or at a viewing distance of 2 feet on
your computer is often entirely illegible when projected on a screen.
Ideally, redesign graphics to use highly legible screen fonts (rather than
the tiny serifs commonly used for journal graphics), and edit the graphics
rigorously to present the minimum amount of visual information that still
communicates the concept. (Oh yeah... rotate the y-axis labels so they're
horizontal. Much easier to read.) For example, don't clutter a graph with
regression equations; either omit them or present them on a subsequent
slide. For example, present a graph that shows several trends in the data as
several independant graphs; by showing only one trend at a time, you let
viewers see and understand that trend quickly so they can focus on what the
speaker has to say about the trend, not on deciphering the many potential
relationshoips on the graph. The more correlations and relationships each
graph contains, the longer it takes for their attention to return to you.
Needless to say <g>, don't use 3D bar or pie charts; they're next to
impossible to read accurately.

Fourth, make sure the slides make sense. You'd be amazed at how often
authors insert the wrong graphics or make a statement on the slide that
contradicts what they're saying in their speech. (Yes, you'll need to get a
copy of the speaker's notes or listen to the speech to be able to do this.)

Last but not least, use some restraint. Forget about flashy special effects,
zooming animations, multimedia etc. unless these effects are really
necessary to communicate your point. The more bells and whistles you add to
the presentation, the less mental resources the audience has to focus on
what you're saying.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"User's advocate" online monthly at

"Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot; others transform a
yellow spot into the sun."- -Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)


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