Quiz: How many words should you put on your slide, and WHY?

How many words (at most) should you put on a slide? It’s a common (and reasonable) question. But depending on who you ask, the answer you get can vary hugely.

Here are 4 typical answers:

  1. As many words as you want
  2. Up to 36 words (6×6 words)
  3. Around 15 words
  4. At most 6 words (as Seth Godin suggests, which I wrote about last month)

Before you read on, what do you think is the best answer – and why?


Option 1: As many words as you want

Most presenters don’t formally limit their word-count, so at times you’ve probably seen slides with hundreds of words on them. (You might’ve even made slides like that yourself!) The result is what author Garr Reynolds calls a “slideument” – a slide that looks like a printed document.

But as Dr John Medina explains in his book Brain Rules, people can’t read a slide and listen to you at the same time, because our brains can’t multi-task our attention. That’s why having as many words as you want isn’t a good idea.

Limit the number of words you put on a slide.

So instead, I strongly recommend you limit the number of words you put on a slide. In the rest of this post, let’s look at the other 3 options I listed at the start, which are much more specific about how many words to use

Option 2: Up to 36 words

As blogger John Zimmer wrote, many people suggest putting up to 6 bullet points of at most 6 words each on a slide. That’s certainly better than having unlimited words, but up to 36 words is still too many for 2 main reasons:

  • Your audience’s minds will tend to get overloaded, because you’re still sending them 2 sets of words at once – spoken and written.

    (At a typical reading speed of 180 words per minute, or 3 words per second, it takes 12 seconds for people to read 36 words. Are you willing to stay silent that long to let people read your slide in peace? And even if you are, doesn’t your talk start to seem redundant with you standing there mute much of the time?)
     
  • Text-based slides bore people

  • Text-based slides bore people, because both what you say and what you show is based on words. So that’s really not using your slides to their full visual potential (like you do when you put photos, charts, or diagrams on them instead).

Together then, that’s why bullet-point slides get such a bad rap. As you might have read before, blogger Olivia Mitchell put it beautifully:

“Bullet-point slides damage your brand.”


Option 3: Around 15 words

To my mind, a workable upper limit of text to put on a slide is around 15 words. And that number’s not arbitrary (as the number 36 seems to be) – I base it on 2 factors:

  • The comfortable length of a pause to let the audience read a slide
  • Typical reading speed.

So, if we treat a pause of about 5 seconds as being the longest comfortable pause to let people read, and 180 words per minute (or 3 words per second) as being a reasonable reading speed for unfamiliar text on a slide, that gives:

5 seconds × 3 words per second = 15 words

I’m in good company here, too. These 5 expert authors and bloggers support limiting how many seconds of content you show at once:

Expert Well-known book or other published work Expert suggests each slide needs to be understood within N seconds
Nancy Duarte “slide:ology” 3 seconds
Garr Reynolds “Presentation Zen” 3 seconds
Phil Waknell “Phil Presents” blog 3-5 seconds
Jerry Weissman “Presenting to Win” 5 seconds
Jim Endicott Annual “Presentation Impact Survey” 7-8 seconds

Please understand 3 key points:

  • 15 words is just a rough guide, not a fixed rule. So if you need more words on a specific slide, don’t let me stop you! (That’s not a licence to ignore the guideline completely though. If you have, say, a slide with 50 words on it, or several slides with 20 words each, ask yourself if there’s a better way, and remember to stay silent while people read the words.)
     
  • Wherever you can, it’s better to make your slides “sub-verbal”, meaning to base them on diagrams, charts or photos rather than on words. By all means, you can have short labels on those types of slides too, but the focus should be graphical, not textual. That way, your slides complement the words you say, rather than competing with them.
     
  • I’m talking about slides that you actually present, either live (in person or remotely) or in a recording. If instead you put your slides on a site like SlideShare for them to stand alone, without narration, you might need more than 15 words on a slide to get your point across. The 15-word limit’s meant to avoid your slides distracting people from what you’re saying, so if your slides stand alone, the limit doesn’t apply.


Option 4: At most 6 words

This surprisingly small and seemingly arbitrary number was put forward by Seth Godin many years ago, as I wrote about last month. However, to my mind, there are several good reasons to ignore Seth’s 6-word limit. Not least of those is that Seth sometimes ignores his own rule, as you’ll see on video if you check out my post about it!


The bottom line

As I wrote above, I recommend around 15 words as the most to put on a slide. That’s not as shocking or rigid as Seth Godin’s “6-word rule”, and I can even explain where the number 15 comes from, so my bet is the 15-word guideline won’t go viral like Seth’s rule seems to have!

But being just a little closer to the 100+ words you see on lots of people’s slides, I hope the 15-word guideline stands a slightly better chance of actually being adopted.


Over to you

Please share your thoughts:

  • Roughly how many words do you tend to put on your slides?
  • What story can you share about wordy (or concise) slides?


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8 thoughts on “Quiz: How many words should you put on your slide, and WHY?

    • Thanks for commenting, Roar. I recommend presenters sum up each slide in one sentence so both the speaker and the audience are clear on what the slide’s point is.

      Mind you, two potential drawbacks of actually writing the sentence on the slide are that the words might distract attention from the speaker, and the audience might get ahead of what the speaker’s saying and have to wait for him/her to catch up. I’d be interested in your perspective on those issues.

      • Good point. I’ve been working on several powerpoint ‘pop-ups’ for a legal conference. A ‘pop-up’ is a bit like a self-automated slide show set to music that runs in between guest speakers. My mind is full of slides with narrative at the moment. I agree it’s not appropriate for every context.

        • Ah, that type of slideshow can work really well. I did one last week to project on the wall while people arrived for our area’s Toastmasters contest. (In fact in that instance we ended up deciding to remove the captions and just had photos in the final version.)

          Not sure if you’ve seen them, but here are some sample slides from a self-running show. Rhetorical questions or other intriguing “teasers” about the upcoming topic are a superb way to make your audience laser-focused on the session – even before it starts!

  1. I saw your comment on PRISMS slide. You had issues with how they made them. Your comments were off base and you should never be involved with slide editing. Leave that job to someone who has a brain.

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