Quick Fix for Cluttered Slides

Quick Fix for Cluttered Slides

Cluttered slides are the first cause of a trainwreck investor presentation. But there are things you can do to reduce clutter without taking away from your main message or “dumbing down” your ideas. And some quick fixes you can apply literally overnight. 

Clutter is bad in myriad ways. It frustrates the audience. They get lost in the clutter and don’t know where to look to match what the presenter is saying. Which forces them to decide between looking and listening to the presenter. 

It’s bad on a cognitive level too, because all material mashed together obscures the key ideas. The audience doesn’t know what to think.

Crowded slides trip up the presenter, too. Do you say something about every item on the screen? Or do you skip over or ignore whole sections, confusing the audience even more? If the slide is cluttered with full sentences or (shudder!) whole paragraphs, you’re tempted to read everything on the slide. If you do, audiences hate you!   

The opposite of cluttered slides is low-density slides, with minimal text, large photos, and lots of breathing room (white space) that makes it easy for the audience to track with the presenter and grasp what’s important. Low-density slides are the ideal you strive for. 

Below are four ways you can do to kill clutter and improve the look of your slides. 

1) Prune Text

Most slides are too wordy because, duh!, they have too many words.

Filling a slide with text is a bad habit, a worst-practice carried over from the practice of designing slides to be printed out or emailed. Or the lazy habit of using slides as the speaker’s notes. 

The first and most basic part of the solution is ruthless editing. Look at every line, every phrase, EVERY WORD and ask, “does keeping that in do more harm than good?”  Slash, burn, and shred anything that isn’t helping the audience in a huge way understand the key idea at that point in your narrative. 

Never paragraphs!

No long sentences  (very short sentences are sometimes ok).

Short telegraphic phrases.

If you’re in a radical mood, try boiling some of your slides down to nothing but a few words in the center of a slide surrounded by white space.  Works well with single numbers too.

Keep repeating the mantra “less is more” as you slash and burn. Because it’s true. The words that remain will stand out and mean more. It’s all about how much the audience can handle in the moment.  When you offer only a few words at a time, the audience tracks with you from point to point, effortlessly. They look at the slide, take in the words in a few seconds, then turn their attention to you and your narrative. They aren’t torn between looking and listening, and have time to think and connect ideas. That’s what you want.

If you take this to heart, you will feel a tinge of glee every time you remove even a single word. 

2) Increase Image Size

Why use an image that’s too small for the audience to see? Why? It makes no sense. Yet I see it all the time. Little photos of products, clip art, little charts crammed onto slides along with too much text.

An easy fix is to look at every image and, as with text, assume a take-no-prisoners attitude and delete any that don’t contribute hugely to the audience absorbing and remembering your point.

With images you deem essential, make them bigger. Really big. Fill the slide, or most of the slide. Make a statement with the image alone.

When you do, use only high-resolution photos. It’s easy to grab a photo off the Internet that looks good at first, but when expanded to fill the slide, lacks enough pixels and looks jagged. Pixilated images are a noticeable drag on the overall appearance of the slide. They’re the mark of an amateur. On the other hand, a professionally shot high-res photos, in focus, with optimized color, gives tremendous punch and emotional weight to your presentation.

It might take more time and effort to find the right image in the high resolution you need. Some people I know “borrow” photos through Google Images and get away with it, so long as your presentation is only viewed privately (not posted on Slideshare). There are many, many websites offering millions of royalty-free stock photos. If you’re working with a graphic designer, the good ones are expert at sourcing great photos.

If it’s a photo unique to your company (product photos, customer installations, etc.), insist on photographs taken with a high-quality digital camera and processed correctly. Photos taken with a smart phone usually aren’t acceptable—they’re too blurry and low res to be blown up onto a slide—unless you really know what you’re doing.

Now, on those images that fill all or most of the screen, consider layering a few select words of text on top of the image. Be sure there’s enough contrast so that the text is legible. For example, put dark text on top of a blue sky, or white text on a darkened doorway or floor that is otherwise dead space in the image. Or use text boxes. 

The same goes for charts and graphs and diagrams. Make them big, or don’t use them at all. Never more than one per slide. Simplify! Eliminate any graphic elements that aren’t absolutely necessary for understanding the graphic. (Google “Edward Tufte chart junk”) Show the graph by itself—no extra text inserted “because we had the room.” Beware double or redundant titles (slide and graph). Make all labels easily legible. Eliminate keys and label directly on the graphic elements.

Most clip art should be junked. It doesn’t dress up your slides, it makes them look cheap and takes up visual space (clutter). Using cute doodads for bullets is oh so 1997. An exception might be a professionally designed set of custom graphics that are coordinated with your branding or your product, or icons used deliberately to clarify your structure. But that’s an advanced technique, not a quick fix.

3) Suppress Templates

Old-school PowerPoint technique depends on templates to force a title, logo, page numbers, legal alerts, and graphic frills on every slide. If you’re really old school, your template has a textured background. 

The first problem with templates is that they make every slide look the same (boring!). The second problem is they take up too much slide real estate, leaving little space for actual content. No wonder you make everything too small!  

Who said you have to show a logo on every slide? Not your investor audience. It’s a meaningless habit, a carryover from corporate policy manuals and a consequence of the total-control philosophy enshrined in PowerPoint software. (Google “Edward Tufte PowerPoint”)

The same goes for slide titles. You do not need a title on every slide! Trust me. 

Sometimes a slide benefits from a short title. If so, scale it’s font size to the rest of the content. Some templates force a full 25% of the most prime slide real estate at the top of the slide for a big, top-heavy title box. Edit hard to eliminate any extra words, and titles should never be two lines.

Templates actually serve two functions. My rant targets the practice of forcing the same visible elements on every’ slide. However, “invisible templates”—slide masters—in PowerPoint (and Keynote) are recommended for enforcing consistency of fonts, colors, and placement of graphic elements (grids).  

Generally, slides with photos, charts, or diagrams look best if they don’t have to compete for attention and space with any visible template elements. Start with a totally empty slide, paste in your photo or graph, and size it to fill the whole slide. 

It’s not a bad idea to show your logo on some slides. Text slides, bullet slides are the best for logos. (Yes, bullets are sometimes exactly the right choice for showing a list of key points.) A rough rule of thumb is to have your logo on no more than a third of your slides, which happens to be about the right proportion of all-text slides in an investor presentation. 

By the way, when you do show a logo, it should be small and preferably in the lower right corner of the slide, the last place people look.  (Except on the title slide, where it should be centered in the top half and big.)

Again, with your take-no-prisoners attitude, go through your deck and look for any slide that can be improved by removing the title, a logo, or any other elements automatically thrust onto the slide from the slide master. Remember: YOU are the master of your slides, not some template. 

4) Parse and Prune

Don’t look only for slides loaded with too much visual junk, but also for slides with too many ideas. Hunt down single slides with two, three, or four major ideas crammed together. The solution is to simply parse the ideas onto two, three, or four slides. Or more—you might decide to use two or three uncluttered (big images, legible text) slides for any one of the parsed ideas. 

For example, if you find a slide where you have three columns, or three bullet/sub-bullet clusters, see if you can distribute the content onto three separate slides. No, it won’t take more time to present. You just flip through the slides faster (that’s what clickers are for). 

Let’s compare this parsing idea to the old one-idea-per-slide rule. If you stick to that rule, you are almost guaranteed to have cluttered slides. If you don’t question the all-too-common advice that you’re allowed only one slide for marketing strategy, another for competition, one for products, and one for management team, etc. you will be cramming complex ideas onto single slides. (Look for my ebook, The 10-Slide Rule is Wrong.)

Instead, explain key topics with as many low-density slides as you need. Proportion your argument. Give secondary ideas and evidence less weight with only one quick slide. Delete less important ideas altogether. Which brings us to pruning. 

Pruning is judicious cutting. Editors prune to improve writing, gardeners prune to improve trees and shrubs. Both trust that throwing away some parts, no matter how attractive, is better in the long run for the health of the whole. It takes courage to prune. 

Look at every slide, including the slides you just parsed, and look for any words or clipart or photos that don’t facilitate instant audience understanding. (See #1, above.)  Then cut. Delete. Kill.

If you have two charts on a slide, look for one to cut. If they’re both essential, put each on it’s own slide. (If there’s a critical comparison you’re attempting to show by having the charts side by side, then re-design a single chart that highlights the comparison.)

Same for photographs. If you have two or more on a slide it’s probably wrong. If something’s worth showing, it’s worth our undivided attention. 

If you have text, chart, and photo ALL on the same slide, scream real loud! Then fix it. 

Once you liberate yourself from the ancient rule “one idea = one slide” you can get creative. There’s no reason, for example, why a long list can’t scroll down into the next slide for effect. Or span a long horizontal timeline across two or more slides—reinforced by using the horizontal sliding transition to give a panning effect. 

There are exceptions to parse and prune rule. One is a logo field where the point is the sum of all the logos. Another is list slides where the full list is the point, not individual entries. Or a geek slide, where complexity itself is the point. But these are cases of purposeful density. In most cases a dense slide is just unwitting clutter.