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:
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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