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?
And if you’d like to know right now what I (and 4 published experts) think, you can always jump ahead to see our answer.
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
I’m in good company here, too. These 4 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…|
|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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- Slide makeover: 5 steps to replace boring bullets with audience awe
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Personally I tend not to give a set limit on number of words, other than as few as possible. Instead, I suggest the minimum 30 point font size that is part of Guy Kawasaki’s 10:20:30 rule – no more then 10 slides, no longer than 20 minutes and nothing smaller than 30pt font. You can’t physically get many words on the slide at 30pt font.
You’ll find that and many other tips available on my website.
Thanks for joining the conversation, Richard, and for your link.
I once saw Guy Kawasaki state his 10:20:30 rule in a presentation where he broke each of the 3 parts of his own rule. So I now have trouble taking him (or his rule) seriously.
Still, I think the spirit of it is absolutely right.
If we put more words in a slide and highlights the important words,with different colour.is it a good idea?
Thanks very much for your question, Ankit. Although it is possible to highlight words on a slide, I still don’t think it’s a good idea to add more words.
What’s the reason for more words? Is it to help the audience, or to help the speaker? Also, about how many words do you want to put on the slide?
The problem is that showing more words gives listeners more work to do – more words to process, on top of all the words you’re saying in your talk.
I believe that a good chart should illustrate — that is, diagrams, charts graphs, etc. with a minimal amount of words preferably titles. The rest of your presentation can be provided by you, the speaker.
This would allow the participants to take notes which would be relative to them with regard to the slides. No slide show should be used to make a complete presentation. Slide shows should be used to complement the speaker’s presentation. However, in today’s world, it appears that people use slides to avoid making a spoken presentation.
Thanks for your comment Herb. I agree – putting as many words on-screen as most presenters do is about fear and avoidance.
One sentence (up to 15-ish words). I like to create a narrative through my slides and use a sentence per slide.
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!
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.
Interesting; I wonder why you said that? (I’m guessing we’ll never know.)
If you’d like to share your own opinion about the PRISM slides, I’d gladly publish it. I’m sure many other people would love to hear it too.
OK, I guess we better resume normal programming now that the heckler has metaphorically left the building.
For the benefit of other readers, my comments about the PRISM slides are:
(The Washington Post added more slides since I first commented there, but if anything, they’re worse than the original slides at the bottom of the post.)
Akkk. No more than 6. Better make it entertaining, with pictures or it’s one big snoozefest. Can you tell I’m a retired teacher?
Thanks for your comment, Shelley.
To me, allowing at most just 6 words is often too strict. For instance, you need more words to show people a succinct, relevant quote – and quotes make good slide content. Likewise, 6 words isn’t even enough to show a bar chart with 6 labelled bars and a labelled axis!
For more on that, please see my post on why I think Seth Godin’s 6-word rule is wrong. And, for specifics about how short a quote should be, see my post on using quotes (which has example quotes by Garr Reynolds and Paul Otellini, former head of Intel).
Also, even using too many picture slides can bore your audience. So to me, the way to avoid people snoozing is to vary the slide types, and even to present without slides for some of the time.
Thanks again for your comment, and do stay involved!