2½ reasons why (to me) Seth Godin’s wrong about how many words to put on your slide

Number 6
Check out this startling quote by author Seth Godin about how many words you should put on a slide:

“No more than six
words on a slide.

(If you’d like to see the quote in context, it’s the 1st item in the numbered list on page 7 of this PDF.)

Are you wondering where he got the magic number 6 from? I certainly am. (Sadly he doesn’t say. So Seth, if you ever happen to read this, I’d love to know why you chose the number 6.)

Apart from the seemingly arbitrary nature of Seth’s rule (which is the “½” reason mentioned in this post’s title), let’s focus on 2 types of helpful slide content that the rule would severely hamper:

  • Quotes
  • Charts

What about quotes?

John Zimmer blogged about Seth’s 6-word rule back in 2010. Below John’s post, UK slide design firm M62’s own Joby Blume commented that 6 words wouldn’t be enough to show a quote on a slide. (For comparison, Seth’s rule itself contains 9 words.)

I assume Seth argues that if you use a quote during a talk, you should just say it and not show the quote on your slide. If that’s the case though, I disagree because a quote involves specific words of course, so I believe it’s usually best to let the audience read it (after you say it), to reinforce it.

Suppose you have a profound quote that you want to put on a slide, and it’s more than 6 words – as nearly all quotes are of course! To comply with Seth’s extreme and rigid rule, you could end up with one of these 3 scenarios, where the quote’s:

  • Left out of your talk altogether
  • Spoken only (which makes it harder for your audience to absorb)
  • Split onto 2 or more slides – yikes!

Quotes that are both concise and incisive are a great way to support a point you’re making. It’s just not realistic to limit quotes to only 6 words, and to me it’s counter-productive to banish them from your slides.

What about charts?

As well as quotes, another place Seth’s 6-word rule would be hard to comply with would be when showing a bar chart with 6 or more bars. How do you label 6 bars plus the axis with only 6 words? Again, “Yikes!”

I do wonder whether Seth’s ever broken his own rule. Mind you in this post, he does a makeover on a Garr Reynolds chart slide, cutting the number of bars from 6 to 3, and deleting the slide title. So maybe he has always followed the 6-word rule himself.

Update: Thanks to John Zimmer for providing a link to a 2-minute video that shows Seth breaking his own rule (at the 30-second mark in the clip). Please also see John’s comment below, and my reply to it.

Why is Seth’s rule so strict?

My gut tells me Seth made his rule so extreme – by choosing such a small number (6) and saying you could never exceed it – for 2 reasons:

  • He was reacting against a vast wasteland of what he simply called “really bad PowerPoint”. That’s where literally millions of talks can have hundreds of words on a slide. I certainly commend Seth for trying to change such a shockingly bad state of affairs.
  • The stricter a rule is, the more memorable and (literally) remarkable it is, so people remember the rule and widely remark on it – as I’m doing right now.

That leads us into the other reasons why the rule is “sticky” or memorable

Why is Seth’s rule so sticky?

To me, 3 factors make “Seth’s 6-word rule” memorable – and viral! (Despite the rule being over 10 years old, just this month authorSTREAM tweeted it to nearly 8000 followers.)

  • It’s radically different from what most presenters actually do, so it’s striking.
  • It’s rigid, which helps make it simple.
  • It’s stated as a “commandment” (without reasoning), so its gall is gripping!

However, those factors mostly make it very hard to actually comply with. So, it seems very few if any presenters have seriously adopted it. All the same, as shown by the fact that Seth’s rule is still being tweeted as though you should follow it, it confuses the issue of how many words you should put on your slides.

A less rigid, more robust approach

I believe we need guidelines that are more flexible and less extreme than Seth’s. That reminds me of a superb quote I saw once (I think by Jeff Hurt). It went something like this:

The great thing about rules of thumb
is that thumbs can bend!

Sadly, there’s barely any flexibility in Seth’s rule of course, so to me it seems rather arbitrary and rigid, and just too plain radical to be useful. Yes I want typical presenters to use less words on a given slide, and to use fewer text-based slides too. I just don’t think rigid rules that seem rather random (and very radical) are the best way to persuade people.

Over to you

So, that’s my view. What’s your opinion on Seth’s strict 6-word rule? Please feel free to add a comment below.

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10 thoughts on “2½ reasons why (to me) Seth Godin’s wrong about how many words to put on your slide

  1. I don’t agree with 6 word slides at all.
    Yes, many people put way too many words on slides and encouraging a minimalist approach is excellent. But never more than 6 words? Nope.
    Some of my clients use presentations to explain new legislation – the legislation often has to be read (and that will never be less than 6 words!) and explanations may involve tables and bullet lists.
    Other times I’ve prepared/seen slides that are steps of a process – the ideal is to have the steps briefly outlined on a slide and explained verbally, but even 4 steps of two words each breaks the 6 word rule.
    And let’s face it, a critical slide includes contact details and that could be over 6 words, too!
    I would argue that trying to stay under 6 words would be such a distraction from presenting good slides that it would be counter productive. As would cutting out words to meet that target – sometimes too few words won’t be helpful at communicating the message.

  2. Great point, very useful questions and points you brought up regarding the rule. I’m learning quite a lot from your blog posts!

    I thought a lot about the six word rule. To me, the rule should be strong reminder of the “less is more” and “slides should be a supplement, not something the audience has to read” but to follow it religiously in my mind is asking for too much. Quotes I am on two fences. If it’s a well known quote, I think you can probably say it out loud and the audience will remember. If its not as well known, I prefer to put it on a slide by itself. With lengthy quotes I would say it is likely/possible we can even cut those down and extract the main points of the quote that will help impact our presentation. (I know there is a proper way to cut and shorten that, at the moment which I have forgotten.)

    It is a great thing to strive for, to keep in mind the meaning behind that rule, but to me it should not be the absolute.

    • Thanks Vivien – I’m very glad you’re finding the posts useful.

      I completely agree with you about the spirit of the rule being appropriate. The problem comes because the rule “demands to be taken literally” (also see my reply to Roar, below).

      To shorten quotes, please see my How to use quotes… post for specific tips. There, you’ll find 2 examples of long quotes (one of them by Garr Reynolds), and see how you might shorten them for use on your slides.

      Thanks again to you and everyone who’s joined the conversation here!

  3. I quite often use more than 6 words on my slides, and I think they still look uncluttered and minimalist. The rule is a good reminder to keep text to a minimum. It’s a catchy little mantra.

    • Thanks for commenting, Roar.

      To me, the main thing is that slides should be “sub-verbal” – meaning they shouldn’t rely heavily on words for their core message. Instead (whenever possible) they can use charts, diagrams, statistics, photos etc, often with a few words just as labels.

      Sadly the 6-word rule demands to be taken literally, whereas it should really be taken figuratively, as you imply. To me, that’s why it’s confusing and quite dangerous for mass consumption.

      I think you’re absolutely right that the rule’s catchy, or sticky. Trouble is, it’s great at lodging an inaccurate mantra in people’s heads! It’d be better if it said “No more than 6 words on a slide. Sometimes!

  4. Craig, thanks for the great post and for advancing the debate on this issue. I love Seth’s stuff – five of his books sit on my shelf and I have a special folder on my computer just for him – but the “6 words only” rule simply cannot stand. You raise some good points as to why.

    I see no problem, whatsoever, in having a quote on a slide, but I do agree with Susan that the impact will be lessened if the speaker has to turn and read it. The solution? Susan’s advice on having the quote on a piece of paper. Even better: Know the quote cold and recite to the audience when the slide is up.

    In my workshops, which can run from one to three days, I use quotes in a variety of ways. Most of the time there is no slide. Sometimes there is a slide. My favourite example is one of the Mona Lisa with this gem from Leonardo da Vinci: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Or, for another presentation, I have a great image of a statue set against the sky with this quote from Michelangelo: “I saw an angel in the stone and carved to set her free.”

    For variety, I even have one slide which is only a quote – white on black – by Ken Haemer. After talking about the importance of thinking about your audience, I put it up and don’t say a word. I just let the audience read it: “Designing a presentation without your audience in mind is like writing a love letter and addressing it: ‘To whom it may concern.'” That always gets a good laugh and, in a day-long workshop, it is a bit of variety to have a slide and not say anything.

    As for Seth, I know for a fact that he does not always adhere to his own rule. I have seen presentations where he gone past 6 words. In fact, I took a quick look on YouTube just now and here is the first video I checked: http://youtu.be/g-qZ1dYT_lc Note the slide that appears at 0:27. I count 11 words, almost double Seth’s own rule. But it is an effective slide. And, Seth’s overall message about not overloading your slides is advice worth taking.

    Thanks again for the great post.


    • Thanks for sharing some specific quotes you use yourself, John – it’s great to get insight into your workshops.

      It’s also invaluable to actually see an example of Seth breaking his own rule! That blows it out of the water – and dents his own credibility too. (To give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe he decided that after about 10 years of people ignoring his rule, it was time for a different approach!)

      It’s like Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 rule: I once saw Guy blithely present his rule in a webinar where he had dozens of slides (not 10) and spoke for 30 minutes plus Q&A (not 20)! There was no mention of his rule only applying under specific circumstances, either. He just presented it like it was some law of nature, as though every presenter should use it every time – except for himself it seems! Maybe I’ll write about that in a future post…

      Anyway, thanks so much for your comment, John, and good luck in the World Championships of public speaking!

  5. Craig, it may be that your points about why Seth’s rule of 6 is so sticky is exactly why lengthy quotes should be avoided. When a speaker writes a whole quote on a slide, then reads it and gives the audience time to look at it, the experience is not radically different, simple or a commandment.

    However I have a bias against quotes on slides for a very different reason. When a speaker includes a quote on a slide, then projects it and turns to read it, he/she has just given all their personal presence and the power of the platform away. Just swept it all to the slide through all the open space between the audience, the screen and the speaker. This seriously dilutes the meaning and impact of the idea expressed by the quote.

    My preferred alternative is focused on how to make the quote have an impact for the audience. The speaker decides a quote he/she is familiar with makes sense at a given point for some reason. It is that reason, the thinking going on in the speaker’s mind and the impact it makes on the speaker that will be most meaningful to the audience. When the speaker reads the quote from a piece of paper held in their hands, close to the body, prefaces it with the thinking that made the quote come to mind, and follows it with the interpretation or meaning in the context of the topic, the audience will feel the importance and the significance of the quote. That’s impact and it far exceeds seeing the quote word for word on a slide.

    Information, including quotes, is easily and freely available to everyone everywhere. So the quote itself has very little value. What can have tremendous value and become sticky, is the import the speaker gives to the ideas expressed by the quote. The speaker’s import is unique and only available from that person at that time. That’s sticky and impactful.

    • Thanks for commenting, Susan.

      I agree with you that the speaker shouldn’t turn to read the quote, and I like your idea of bookending it with why the speaker chose it and how it relates to the topic.

      My own preference is to say the quote 1st, then show it to the audience to reinforce it visually. While the audience reads it for themselves, the speaker stays silent, so to me the slide doesn’t detract from the speaker. (Without any narration, the audience can almost get the feeling they’re reading the quote from an independent source.)

      One point I disagree on though is that I believe the speaker brings great value simply by choosing quotes that are highly relevant to the topic – from all the thousands of quotes that are freely available. (It’s like Rhonda Abrams wrote: “Decide what’s important so your audience doesn’t have to!”) Because there’s so much information out there, there’s tons of value in weeding out all the fluff.

      Still, I agree that the speaker can add even more value by sharing their insights about the quote. As you say, that puts the speaker’s unique stamp on the process, and brings value beyond the quote alone.

      As always, it’s great to hear your viewpoint, so thanks again for adding to the debate!

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