Minimise “blur” when you present (FiRST framework – part 1m)

Minimize blurIn 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.

Blur harms your goal by being the opposite of focus. Sometimes called “noise”, blur is caused by anything that:

  • 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:

“Decide what’s important so your
audience doesn’t have to!” Tweet this

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:

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:

A talk is a presentation
with the boring bits cut out! Tweet this

(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

Working out your words helps stop perhaps the commonest cause of blur: Fuzzy thinking. As Barbara Minto put it in her influential book on the Pyramid Principle:

“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.

In particular, if you write out your talk, you’ll get these 4 extra benefits:

  • 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 briefScroll 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:

  1. Use (audience) questions or issues for structure
    (as already described).
  2. Stick to just the top 3 points where you can.
  3. Choose shorter words and phrases.
  4. Replace lists of synonyms.

Let’s look at each of those 4 tips in turn:

  1. 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.
  2. Your audience won’t stay focused on long lists of points Tweet this

  3. 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.)

  4. Choose shorter words and phrases throughout your talk – the fewer syllables you can use to clearly make your point, the better. That’s because:

    Syllables are like calories – they’re vital,
    but having too many just adds bloat! Tweet this

    It’s especially worth avoiding words of 4 or more syllables in your talk, where you can. So, rather than saying “alternatives” you could say “options”, and rather than saying “information” you could say “details” – provided the sentence would still sound OK, and mean the same thing (to your audience, not necessarily to you).

    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
    What are the advantages
    and disadvantages?
    What are the pros and cons?
    [Or benefits and drawbacks]
    You have 3 alternatives You have 3 options 4:2 50%
    If you are able to… If you can… 4:1 75%
    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%
    They have a tendency to… They tend to… 6:2 66%
    In conjunction with our partners With our partners 5:1 80%
    By reading the information… By reading the details… 4:2 50%
    In order to open To open 4:1 75%
    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%
    Prior to that Before that 3:2 33%
    Our products and services help you Our solutions help you 6:3 50%
    Let’s turn our
    attention to…
    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.)

  5. 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
    • Replace lists of synonyms with just one word Tweet this

    • each and every
    • fees and charges
    • learning and development
    • mergers and acquisitions
    • over and above
    • roles and responsibilities
    • rules and regulations
    • 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” Tweet thisScroll 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.”

In other words, put true visuals (with almost no words) on your slides. After all:

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

(* 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 howScroll 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 three 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.

If your audience will need the surplus information, move it either to another slide whose message it does support, or to a document you distribute with your slides.

Apply the 3-second ruleScroll 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 impactScroll 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 junkScroll 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.)

On charts (like bar or pie charts), ruthlessly remove everything your audience doesn’t need. In his book and blog, Presentation Zen, Garr Reynolds discusses what that involves.

Round long numbersScroll 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 $0.0,, "M"
$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) =ROUND(A1, 2-LEN(INT(A1)))

Keep detailed handouts for the endScroll 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 AimScroll 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 stepsScroll to Contents ↑

When it comes to the goal, your talk’s just the beginning Tweet this

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.”

13 thoughts on “Minimise “blur” when you present (FiRST framework – part 1m)

  1. Great article Craig, so many gems. I’m particularly fond of shortening words and phrases, and a big advocate of white space (less is more)! Definitely very applicable for eLearning.

    • Thanks Janine. I used to be a tech writer, so terseness is pretty much in my blood!:) There are so many crossovers between elearning and other media, so I suppose it’s a case of good writing and good design applying universally.

      I hope to see you around the blog again, and please let me know of future posts you publish.

  2. Craig – I really like your list of shorter phrases. I can imagine you saying them and timing the difference. I agree with shorter – because it generally gets you to simpler. But not in all cases. The products and services to solutions moves to shorter but more cliche. – Gavin

    • Thanks for your comment Gavin.

      I added “products and services” to the list after working with some content where that phrase kept coming up so often that it quickly became obtrusive. (Being a 6-syllable term that, in itself, carries little meaning, it soon weighs down what’s said!)

      One approach to that particular example would be to speak about a specific product or service, so as not be so generic. (After all, the longer term is really “too vague to engage!”)

      Another approach would be to recognise that there’s often no real difference between a product and a service, and so to just use whichever of those 2 words is more appropriate.

      Lastly, depending on the situation, you might even be able to use a different synonym, like “offerings”. Naturally, the approach you choose might vary from one talk to another.

      I actually quite like the word “solutions”, because it harks back to the audience’s problem that your presentation is all about solving.

      • Craig – you have kicked off some interesting thinking – any of which would be (and may become) a blog post on its own.

        1. Products and Services. Is there really a line between the two anymore? or a useful distinction? What were the 20th century’s version of classic products, [software, cars, coffee makers] are taking on characteristics of services [recurring revenue, increased attention to customer lifecycle, hooks into larger ecosystems] and the same goes for services. I can remember paying 2-3 recurring service bills a month, now, with software as a service, entertainment subscriptions, the servicization (not a word) of products increases.

        2. When does a word, or picture, as a token that represents an idea or tangible construct, become over-used and cliche? at what point does its value both in descriptiveness and stand-outness (again not a word) become diminished, and when does it work against you in a presentation?

        Interesting. The wheels are turning…

  3. Bravo Craig,
    Great article and something that everyone who presents with PowerPoint should read.

    Couple of points that I also recommend:
    – Write your speech/presentation first and then ask yourself ‘Do I need to use PowerPoint?’ and if the answer is no – don’t use it!
    – ‘Passionate people persuade’ so press the ‘B’ on your keyboard to black out the screen when you tell a story.

    and lastly, have your own brief notes so you are not tempted to use the PowerPoint as a tele-prompter!

    One day we might just rid the world of death by PowerPoint!

    Cheers Sharon Ferrier

    • Those are great tips, Sharon, so thanks.

      It’s sad that slides are the default medium when people present. Still, the content on my blog should help! And there are even a couple of posts on presenting without slides, too.

      I love your “passionate people persuade” assertion. I’ve added that to the quotes file I keep. It also reminds me of this gem by Neil Flett, chairman of Rogen International:

      “I have yet to see a slide with charisma,
      or one that can inspire and motivate.”

      At 1st sight, you mightn’t think there’s much involved in pressing the B key. But here are 3+ novel ways you can use it even more effectively.

      When it comes to avoiding using the slides as a teleprompter, you can always use Presenter View to show your brief notes on your laptop while just projecting your slides. Still, it’s worth also having a printout of your notes, in case of a technical problem.

      As for ridding the world of death by slides, I don’t think we’ll see it before we retire! That’s partly why my blog’s called Remote Possibilities.

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