Bugfixes for Humans
P r e s e n t a t e
Bugfixes for Humans
Your slides suck (and it's not your fault)
My name is Justin Hileman. I'm bobthecow on Twitter and GitHub and most of the rest of the Internet. I'm co-founder of Presentate, and we're helping people like you give better presentations.
Humans can't help reading
If there's text on a slide, the audience will try to read it. If it's too small, they'll squint and strain. If there's too much of it, that's even worse.
Studies show that you start losing audience members if you have as little as 5 seconds worth of text on a slide. And once you lose your audience, they can't help reading Twitter or their email instead.
Here's a simple experiment to explore this bug. It's called the Stroop experiemnt (or Stroop effect) and was first studied in 1935.
For the next couple of slides, say the color of the text out loud.
When asked to read the actual words, most people get them all right. But when asked to name the color the words are printed in, a majority of people will get at least some of them wrong.
Humans have a small buffer
Most people can hold 7 +/- 2 different things in their heads at once. This sets the upper limit on the number of ideas you can have in a slide.
If things have temporal or spacial proximity, we assume they're related. This is actually a way to work around the small buffer bug: we can exploit the fact that "humans group like things". If ideas are organized into groups of seven or fewer, the audience is able to keep far more things straight at once.
Even when they don't exist, humans find patterns and assign meaning.
If all of your slides so far have been white and you switch to a blue slide, your audience will notice. They will assume it means something. And a related one…
Humans are distracted by shiny
How many of you have seen presentations that use every transition PowerPoint offers? Text effects? Crazy backgrounds?
Why is that a problem?
Because your audience is looking for patterns. If you don't follow any discernable pattern, they'll still find one. They'll subconsiously assign meaning to the transition you used, or to the color or font of your heading. And if that pattern doesn't match the actual talk, they'll have a hard time following you.
All of these bugs add up to this: If your audience has to work too hard to find the narrative of your talk, if they have a hard time following you for too long, if they recognize patterns where none exist, and if they're thrown off by transitions and effects and animations and craziness, then they'll stop trying. You'll lose them to their phones, and when that happens you'll never get 'em back.
Humans suck at abstraction
I've spent a lot of time watching a lot of people build presentation decks. The software leads you down the wrong path from the beginning. When you open up PowerPoint or Keynote, it drops a couple of choices on you that you shouldn't be making.
First, you have to pick a theme. Then you have to pick a file name for your talk. Only then can you get started deciding what you're going to say.
This is completely backwards. It's backwards because context matters.
Humans are distracted by shiny
It's also backwards because humans are distracted by shiny.
When the first decision you make is what theme to use, it opens the door to a lot of other decisions that won't get you any closer to finishing your talk: what font are you going to use? Should you change the color palette? Is the default background OK, or do you want to edit the master slide and customize it more to your liking?
Which of the various header and footer elements should you add to all your slides? Title? Company logo? Slide numbers? After all, the options must all be available for a reason, right?
But PowerPoint is the devil on your shoulder, trying to convince you to make bad choices.
Maybe Clippy could hang out on the other shoulder and give you hints about best practices? But he's Clippy so you'd prolly ignore him anyway, right?
Humans can't help reading
Your slides are not a teleprompter. If you find yourself reading them, odds are they're distracting to your audience as well. At best, you're insulting their intelligence by reading to them. If your slides have enough information in them that you can read stright through, why are you standing in front of the room? You might as well give the audience your deck, pack up, and go home.
Humans have a small buffer
Like your audience, you can only juggle a limited number of ideas at a time. When you're writing your talk, you will probably have a hard time keeping the whole thing together in your head at once. By encouraging you to deal with a single slide at a time, the software you use works against your ability to see the bigger picture.
In 1992 PowerPoint 3 shipped, bringing with it animations, transitions, embedded video, sound effects, and the ability to project your talk on a wall. But our presentation needs have changed in the 22 years since then. Back then, the audience always had the speaker present. The meat of the talk came out of the speaker's mouth, and the slides could be concise and simple and act as guideposts for the narrative. Now, a speaker may present to hundreds or even thousands in person, but then they post their slides on SlideShare where they're seen by millions.
The problem is, the best slides for projecting on a wall are nearly worthless when viewed in isolation online. And the best slides for sharing have far too much information to work well in front of an audience.
Back in the Good Old Days of slide carousels and overhead projectors, speakers would often prepare a handout for their audience to take home. They couldn't very well share the 35mm slides themselves, but they could prepare a document to act as an artifact of the talk.
But making two documents is a lot of work. Now, both functions are shoehorned into the same document, leaving something ill suited to either projecting on the wall or taking home to read later.
Best practices = Bugfixes
A large body of work has been amassed over the years about how to effectively present information. Duarte has done amazing things. It seems like every tech evangelist and startup mentor has taken a stab at it. And there are piles of research and literature. We'll go through a couple of high level things.
If you can organize ideas into groups of seven or fewer, your audience will be able to keep far more than that straight. In fact, you can (read: should) build a hierarchy of ideas, with each level of abstraction broken down into seven or fewer groups of ideas.
But you actually don't want to come close to the seven thing cap. Putting seven things on every slide pushes the cognitive load of your audience to its limit, and when they're taxed like that, they stop paying attention.
So there's a rule called the "Rule of Four". Your talk should have four sections, each section should have four ideas. Your slides should have at most four bullets, your bullets should contain about four words. And you should always use a maximum of four objects per slide.
If your background is complex or confusing, it counts as one of those four objects.
Don't start with a title slide: pick your title at the end, after you know what you're going to say.
Don't open PowerPoint
Don't start by making slides at all: you're dealing with your content at the wrong level of abstraction.
Don't open PowerPoint yet. Open a Word document or a text editor and start typing.
Write down everything you can think of about your subject. Write one thought per line. Turn off word wrap; it forces you to be more honest about "one thought per line". We're doing a random walk through your thought graph on the subject. You shouldn't prematurely refactor or optimize your thoughts, or you'll lose sections of the graph.
Read through your document and pick four themes. Group every line under one of the four themes. If you can't make a thought fit, drop it. Every thought has to justify its inclusion in the talk.
Now that you know what you're going to say, figure out how to say it. Organize your thoughts, pull it together into a narrative. It can be an extended outline, or it can be prose. Just think about it as a cohesive whole. And don't open your presentation software yet.
Remember how your slides aren't your handout? You should write that handout before you start writing your slides. That's how you know your story is cohesive. That's how you test and refine your narrative.
Now you can open PowerPoint. Take that long form document you just wrote and extract your slides from it. Highlight words, phrases or quotes from the handout you just prepared.
Remember that your slides are guideposts. They're there to keep you and your audience on the same page. They're there to provide structure and flow to your talk, not to drag you and your viewers through the subject matter one sentence at a time.
A great exercise is to try removing things from your slides. Look for extraneous words. Be brutal, remove anything that doesn't add something.
If you have a chart, try to pare it down to the bare minimum that will get your point across. Remove most of the ticks on the axes, simplify all the labels. If there's a key, switch it to inline labels. Charts and graphs are a huge issue. I could talk for hours just about those. I'll spare you this time, but if you're interested check out Stephen Kosslyn's work on the psychology behind visualizations.
[ default slides, problems with them ]
If you must bullet…
• Four bullets per slide.
• Four words per bullet. • One indent level. • Or just don't.
Keep things short, remember, audience can only give you 5-10 seconds before you lsoe them. Is that slide full of bullet points worth it? Okay then, we'll try to make the best of it.
If you have a complex outline, break it up into multiple bullet slides.
You have grouped all your points into four major themes, put those themes on one slide. Now break the rest of your outline up into four more bullet slides, each one step more granular than the originals. But only show a list of bullets at the same level of abstraction.
Keep each bullet to two lines or fewer. Bonus: keep it to four words or fewer.
This is a good rule for all text, not just bullets. Two lines is good, four words is better.
If you have a hard time with restraint, give constraint a try. Pick an arbitrary constraint and build a talk around it.
This is actually a common problem in government. It's pervasive enough that the military warranted its own section on the PowerPoint Wikipedia page.
Six objects is too many though. Remember the Rule of Four? But your probably don't even need four. Try it with even fewer.
Seth Godin has a great
"200 slide solution". The next time you have to give a 40 minute talk, write 200 slides. That's one slide every 12 seconds.
You're used to putting three or four bullet points on a slide. That's at least four distinct ideas, but more often, each of those ideas has three or four sub ideas to it. In other words, you're cramming 32 ideas on a slide, and you're sitting on that slide as you drone on and on.
— Seth Godin
So blow it up. Write just one word per slide. 200 slides, 200 words. Or even fewer. Who says you need words at all? Maybe some slides have just an image.
How does this change your pace? How does it change your delivery?
This is an excercise. It's not the answer to all talks, but it's a great constraint to teach you restraint. Once you've given a talk with one-word slides, going back to four words feels easy. Once you've given a 200 slide talk, maybe you realize you can give one with 50 slides. Or four slides. Or none.
You should try giving a talk on auto-advance at least once. Ignite talks and Pecha Kucha strictly enforce this constraint. You have 20 seconds per slide, and if you don't finish your thoughts in time, the deck marches on without you.
I've spent more time preparing for a 5 minute Ignite than I have for hour-long conference sessions. It's a lot of work to turn this constraint into a cohesive story.
Give it a shot. Find an Ignite event and sign up to speak. It's an amazing experience.
When I was in college there was a sign on the wall next to the time clock, that said, essentially, "don't forget to turn in your time cards on Fridays". But it didn't say it like that. Instead, it used two fonts, bold, all caps, italics, and underline, seemingly at random.
Everything was emphasized. Which really means nothing was.
One of the best ways to combat audience bugs is through good design. You're prolly not all designers, so I'll run through a few of the things a lot of people get wrong. At the end, I'll give you a bonus answer to all the things.
Don't underline anything, ever. It looks like a link. And it makes it harder to see the descenders on letters. Plus, there are better ways to emphasize.
Use italics, bold or color to emphasize
part of your text.
Don't overemphasize. Remember the parable of the time card sign: if everything is important, nothing is.
Use color change only for emphasis or different classes of information. Don't use more than three colors. Keep colors consistent throughout your talk. Always use the same color for the same class of thing.
Don't change fonts. Don't use fancy fonts. Don't mix sans and serif.
Use standard fonts — if you don't, they'll change when you take your talk to another computer.
Or use Presentate!
Use very large text: to test, stand at least six feet back from your laptop. Can you see words without squinting?
Make sure the foreground and background have enough contrast (presentate feature!)
Keep it simple: use simple bg images, if any. Fade bg images, or tint them, or blur them. Use contrasting colors and overlays to ensure your text is visible.
Of course, I'm here because I think we can do better.
As I said at the beginning, I'm the co-founder of Presentate, a startup that's trying to make you better presenters. We're doing this by baking this research and these best practices right into the product.
Content comes first: Drafts mode, pick a theme/title last, long form editor with more context.
Design constraints: encourage or even enforce best practices, enforce font sizes, limit choices to a bare minimum. Restriction vs. friction.
the promise of presentations on the web
responsive content, not just responsive design
adding friction vs restriction
This talk is far from everything. You should check out Seth Godin's Really Bad PowerPoint ebook. If you ever get a chance, attend a Presentation Aikido session by Damian Conway. Take a Tufte class next time he's in town. For a bit more on the psychology behind this, Clear and to the Point by Stephen Kosslyn is an easy read, and it's packed with good insights.
And be sure to sign up for Presentate!
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Sep 23, 2014,
Last updated: Oct 6, 2014
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