In this post, you’ll find 9 steps you can take to cut “blur”. (Short of time? You can skip straight to those 9 steps.) First though, let’s just briefly look at what blur is, and how you can recognise it.
- overwhelms your audience
- or distracts them from you and your core message.
Common signs of blur include:
Any slide content you ignore entirely is a sure sign of blur!
- Any slide content you just touch on (or ignore entirely – a sure sign of blur!)
- Content you deliver too quickly for people to absorb.
- Frills that neither help your audience to understand nor remember your specific message. (Frills include – among other things – any bland photo, and any eye-catching but meaningless animation.)
- Numbers that are too precise (e.g. millions being shown to the nearest dollar).
By far the commonest sign of blur is having too much content
By far the commonest sign of blur is having too much content (in your whole talk, or on certain slides). To combat that, do as Rhonda Abrams suggests:
The main result of deciding what’s important is omitting what’s not, and always remember:
The best way to judge importance is to
use your audience’s viewpoint.
(For context, please see the overview of the FiRST framework.)
As with focusing attention as a whole, minimising blur is mostly for your audience’s sake but begins with you. Here are 9 steps you can take to minimise blur, which we’ll look at in turn:
- Work out your words (and do it early)
- Be brief
- Make your slides “sub-verbal”
- Present just 1 thought per slide – here’s how
- Apply the 3-second rule
- Pause for impact
- Dump the junk
- Round long numbers
- Keep detailed handouts for the end
Also in this post:
Mindful of the commonest sign of blur, first up we’ll look at ways to slash your content!
Work out your words (and do it early)
Working out your words means establishing clearly what you’ll actually say (and “early” means before you create your slides). You can work out your words in either of 2 ways:
- Write out your talk.
- Record yourself rehearsing.
Don’t do as most presenters do and write out your talk on your slides!
I believe writing out your talk is the most effective way to work out your words, but I know you mightn’t want to do it. That’s why I say you can record yourself instead. (You mightn’t want to do that either, but how else are you going to clearly work out what you want to say before you present? Whatever you do, don’t do as most presenters do and write out your talk on your slides!)
Borrowing from Alfred Hitchcock, I find it’s useful to think of a “talk” this way:
(Hitchcock said “Drama is life with the boring bits cut out.”)
Often, the “boring bits” are the slides, because most presenters in effect write a script on them.
For your own sake and your audience’s,
please don’t do that!
Working out your words helps stop perhaps the commonest cause of blur
“You cannot know precisely what you think until…
saying it out loud or …writing it down”
When you work out your words, the intent is to refine your ideas and to rehearse, both of which you need to do long before you present.
Please don’t read your talk when you present
– that would wreck your delivery!
Write your talk in sentences not bullets
So to focus your own attention, if you write out your talk, write it in a word processor or on PowerPoint notes pages (that is, without any slides). I also recommend you write your talk in sentences not bullets, to help you fully work out your words and to get well away from “old-style” presenting.
And don’t worry – working out your words won’t waste any of your time, for these good reasons:
- As Barbara Minto noted, it’s the only way to fully define your ideas before you present them.
- It helps you truly rehearse, perfecting crucial things like the overall timing, your opening and closing remarks, and how you smoothly segue between topics.
- It lets you (or someone else) more easily amend your talk.
- You can use the final version as speaker’s notes or a handout, or both.
- As discussed below (in Make your slides “sub-verbal”), your slides should contain very few words. As a result, you really need to write your remarks somewhere else so you can give your talk even months later, or so a colleague can give it any time.
- As expert presenter Chantal Bossé says on Office Online:
“Throwing away scribbled ideas
…is a lot less painful than tossing unnecessary slides”
Be briefBack to Contents ↑
Franklin Roosevelt put this brilliantly:
“Be sincere; be brief; be seated.”
Being brief is one of the key ways to minimise blur
Being brief is one of the key ways to minimise blur and keep your audience’s attention, yet for many presenters, it’s also one of the hardest! So to help you, here are 4 concrete tips for being brief:
- Use (audience) questions or issues for structure
(as already described).
- Stick to just the top 3 points where you can.
- Choose shorter words and phrases.
- Replace lists of synonyms.
Let’s look at each of those 4 tips in turn:
- The best way to limit your talk’s length is to structure it around audience questions or issues, because then you discuss only what your audience thinks is relevant.
- Stick to just the top 3 points at any given level, where you can. (“At any given level” means, like in the FiRST framework, that you can also divide each of your main points into their top 3 sub-points. So in the FiRST framework for instance – as you might or might not know – the F stands for Focus attention, which in turn consists of “Answer the key question”, “Intrigue people” and “Minimise blur”.) There are 2 exceptions where you’ll need more than 3 points on the same level:
- if there are more audience questions or issues (of similar importance)
- because of your topic’s innate breadth. For instance, when presenting about the FiRST framework, I’d keep 5 points in the framework as a whole – 1 for each letter of FiRST – because that’s innate to the topic. (But many of the tips in the framework have lists of more than 3 items, which I’d shorten when presenting them.)
Because your audience can’t control the pace, they won’t stay focused on long lists of points like they do when reading. (What’s more, sticking to just the top 3 points also makes your talk much more memorable.)
- Choose shorter words and phrases throughout your talk – the fewer syllables you can use to clearly make your point, the better. That’s because:
You might think saving just a few syllables at a time would make no difference. But when you do it sentence after sentence, shedding syllables gives you a much punchier result, where your message really stands out.
For instance, this table lists just a few improvements you might make to the words in your planned talk:
(If you have other examples, I’d love to hear them via the Comment box at the bottom of this page.)
Draft words Shorter words Syllables Saving If you’re able to… If you can… 3:1 66% What are the advantages
What are the pros and cons?
[or benefits and drawbacks]
You have 3 alternatives You have 3 options 4:2 50% At this time, we’ve controlled the situation We’ve controlled the situation 3:0 100% It enables you to… It lets you… 4:1 75% We have a better understanding of… We understand… 9:3 66% In conjunction with our partners… With our partners… 5:1 80% By reading the information… By reading the details… 4:2 50% Here are the instructions Here are the steps 3:1 66% How can you leverage your skills? How can you use your skills? 3:1 66% What are your objectives? What are your goals? 3:1 66% What’s the optimal approach? What’s the best approach? 3:1 66% Our products and services help you… Our solutions help you… 6:3 50% Let’s turn our
Let’s look at… 6:2 66% Utilization of standards has increased… Use of standards has increased… 5:1 80%
(Rarely, a shorter term doesn’t convey the exact intended meaning, in which case by all means leave the original wording. But if in doubt, ask someone who thinks like your audience.)
- Replace lists of synonyms – words with similar meanings – with just one word. Most often, people use synonyms in pairs, and some common pairs are:
- above and beyond
- building and construction
- each and every
- fees and charges
- learning and development
- over and above
- roles and responsibilities
- safety and security
- terms and conditions
If the distinction between the words in a pair or list matters to your audience (which I bet happens in less than 1% of cases), point out the difference. Otherwise, just pick 1 synonym and delete the rest. (Try using just the shortest synonym, but if that doesn’t convey the right meaning, try the other synonym (or the others in turn).)
Make your slides “sub-verbal”Back to Contents ↑
I was going to name this section “make your slides visual, not verbal”, but often people think written words meet that need, so I tried to be more specific. What I mean by the title is this:
After you’ve worked out what you’ll say,
create slides to literally illustrate your talk
– not just to annotate it!
I love the way Richard Mulholland of Missing Link expressed this concept:
“Most people prefer to listen to words,
and see pictures. Be nice to those people.”
Slides aren’t subtitles, so don’t use them that way.
Sentences and paragraphs are a nightmare on a slide!
We’re all taught from childhood to communicate in sentences and paragraphs, but unfortunately those are a nightmare on a slide! That’s partly because of how people read: Have you noticed that whenever you read silently, you “hear” the words in your head? That’s what your audience does if your slides are text-based, in which case people can’t listen to you at the same time.
So – to make your slides complement your talk, not compete with it – here are 7 types of slide content you can use instead of bullet points or sentences:
Make your slides complement your talk, not compete with it
- Diagram, such as SmartArt*
- Screen-shot, with the key area highlighted (See how to do that)
(* You can right-click on a bulleted list in PowerPoint and choose Convert to SmartArt.)
Also, see this chart showing why sub-verbal content’s better than bullets for both informativeness and emotiveness.
Make those content types quick to interpret, too. For instance, with a quote, keep it under 20 words or so – in fact aim for less, because the shorter it is the better. So I’m not saying your slides should have absolutely no words on them, just that they should be mainly visual and not verbal.
Slides full of text just take your audience far too long to read.
A good way to estimate how long is to click the Slide Show tab on the PowerPoint ribbon, then click Rehearse Timings and literally read your slides out loud. (For more about slide timings, also see Apply the 3-second rule.)
To get more ideas for replacing text with something far more engaging, see this great illustrated and succinct post by Connie Malamed on 6 Alternatives To Bullet Lists.
Present just 1 thought per slide – here’s howBack to Contents ↑
One of the very best ways to minimise blur and make your message far clearer is to put only 1 idea on each slide, as suggested by most experts (like Ellen Finkelstein, Olivia Mitchell, Barbara Minto, and Nancy Duarte).
But what exactly is “1 idea”?
Luckily, that’s easy, because you can use a skill you’ve been using since you learnt to talk:
You need to be able to
sum up your slide
in just 1 sentence.
For instance, you might sum it up this way:
“Our solution has 3 benefits, which are that it’s usable, reliable, and scalable.”
(Although that slide mentions 3 benefits, you can tell it contains just 1 idea because it still makes a clear sentence.)
Summing up each slide as a sentence helps ensure it sends a clear message
Summing up each slide as a sentence helps ensure it sends a clear and cohesive message that’s easy for your audience to absorb and, vitally, for you to create.
Each sentence should be self-contained (meaning it needs to make sense without the rest of your slide). So for instance it would be no good summing up your slide this way: “Here are 20 product features”, because that means almost nothing without hearing what the product features are.
Some experts suggest you write a sentence as your slide’s title, but that does have drawbacks. Certainly, it helps make your slide’s meaning clear, but it can also steal your thunder, which you really don’t want. So I advise putting headings in your handout, but either omitting titles from your slides or displaying each one after you’ve talked through most of your slide.
Remove anything from your slide that
doesn’t support its 1-sentence summary.
Apply the 3-second ruleBack to Contents ↑
When you show new content on your slide, you choose which of these 2 things happens while your audience absorbs that content:
- People stop listening properly.
- Or you stay silent.
Brutal choice, isn’t it? So it’s vital you show only very little new content at once. That’s why Nancy Duarte advocates adding only as much content as your audience can absorb in just 3 seconds. (For comparison, long-time presentation blogger Jim Endicott suggests 7 seconds. However, I wouldn’t want to keep pausing for 7 seconds – especially when presenting online, where “dead air” is more likely to let your audience get distracted.)
Chunk your content so 3 seconds is all your audience actually needs
I’m not saying you should show each slide or each piece of content for just 3 seconds. Rather, chunk your content so 3 seconds is all your audience actually needs, then continue to discuss it while it’s still shown. (If you have more content to display on 1 slide, you can use custom animation to display it bit by bit as you talk.)
Pause for impactBack to Contents ↑
Recently I attended an excellent presentation skills course by Josh Jenner of Illuminata Global. One of its key messages was the huge value of pausing after a statement. That’s very much like leaving whitespace on your slides – it emphasises what you do present, and lets your audience absorb your content.
Like whitespace though,
sadly, pauses are chronically underused.
So, with the time you trim off your talk by being brief, I suggest you recycle some of it into pauses. To pause is hard, because it makes us very uncomfortable – particularly when all eyes are on us – but it’s well worth it.
If you’re wondering how often and how long to pause, here’s an easy, quick tip that’s also very memorable. Or for a very thorough article about why and when to pause, see Andrew Dlugan’s post Speech Pauses: 12 Techniques to Speak Volumes with Your Silence.
Dump the junkBack to Contents ↑
“Junk” (a term coined by other writers) means useless elements on a slide. There are 2 main types:
- slide junk
- chart junk
One of the most common forms of slide junk is the presenter’s company logo. Like with your own name, the proper place for the logo is on your first and last slide, as that’s where you (and your organisation if appropriate) usually get a (very brief) mention.
If you don’t talk about it, it shouldn’t be on your slide
Depending on your organisation’s culture, you might meet some resistance to removing the logo from your other slides, but your audience really doesn’t need or want to have it in their face all the time. And if you don’t talk about it, it shouldn’t be on your slide. (Why show it but not mention it? Its presence implies it’s relevant to what you’re currently saying, but it’s not.)
Round long numbersBack to Contents ↑
Your audience is interested in the big picture,
not each dollar – or cent!
When speaking about numbers, you look pretty silly if the numbers are too precise
When speaking about numbers, you look pretty silly if the numbers are too precise. For instance, suppose you’re talking about sales of $4,317,947. How would you actually say that number when you present? You’d likely say either “$4.3 million” or “over $4 million”, and your audience needs to be able to immediately link the number you say with the number on your slide.
If your data is coming from Excel, here are 2 ways you can round your numbers at source so they match what you say:
|To use this form||Do this||Example format or formula|
|$4.3 M||Use a Custom cell format||
|$4,300,000||Use a formula to round the number to 2 digits, then on the Home tab click the $ button, followed by the Decrease Decimal button twice (to remove the cents)||
Keep detailed handouts for the endBack to Contents ↑
Before your talk, people are intrigued about what you’ll say. But what if you distribute a detailed handout at the start, or during your talk? In that case, the quickest way for people to satisfy their intense curiosity about what’s coming up is to read your handout – and ignore you. So:
Metaphorically speaking, you just shot yourself in the foot.
That’s why generally it’s best to supply your handout at the end.
But there are exceptions. For instance, Phil Waknell suggested the great idea of creating a handout of just your 3 main points, with space between them where your audience can write notes. Doing that reinforces your main points, and helps structure any notes that people write. (For a thought-provoking debate about handouts, see Olivia Mitchell’s 2 posts on this subject, including people’s comments at the end.)
20-second summary of AimBack to Contents ↑
Focusing attention can be a real challenge, for sure. Happily, you’ll find it far easier if you use the 3 core tips (and the 20+ actions) from this thread:
Next stepsBack to Contents ↑
The next part of this series will show you practical ways to be remembered, each of which increases the odds of your talk achieving its goal. (After all, when it comes to the goal, your talk’s just the beginning, so being remembered is crucial.)
For more ways you can become a top presenter, see my later posts (such as the ones listed at the bottom of this page). And if you’ve not heard of the FiRST framework before, you might find the overview helpful.
I’d love to hear any feedback or suggestions you have for building on Aim (or the FiRST framework in general). What ways do you use to answer your audience’s key question, intrigue people, or minimise blur? Good luck, let me know how you go, and always “Aim high”! After all, as Nancy Duarte wrote in Resonate:
“The future isn’t just a place you’ll go;
it’s a place you will invent.”