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:
- As many words as you want
- Up to 36 words (6×6 words)
- Around 15 words
- 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
You’ve probably seen slides with hundreds of words
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
Up to 36 words is still too many
As blogger John Zimmer wrote, many people suggest using up to 6 bullet points of at most 6 words each. 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, 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).
Text-based slides bore people
That’s why bullet-point slides get such a bad rap. As blogger Olivia Mitchell puts it:
“Bullet-point slides damage your brand.”
Option 3: Around 15 words
A workable upper limit’s around 15 words per slide
To my mind, a workable upper limit’s around 15 words per slide. 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
|Expert||Well-known book or other published work||Expert suggests each slide needs to be understood within…|
|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|
Please understand 4 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 a slide with, say, 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 all the words.)
- If you use “builds” when you speak (showing your slide text gradually), you can use more than 15 words in total. That’s because people will have more time to digest it. Still, don’t bombard your audience with text!
- 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.
15 words is just a rough guide
If your slides stand alone, the limit doesn’t apply
For tips on removing text from your slides (yet keeping your cool when you speak, and remembering what you want to say!), see Move wordy content to your slide notes.
Option 4: At most 6 words
Seth sometimes ignores his own rule
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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