Three Words…For a Fourth Time

I was asked to debut the Outstanding Presentations webinar series that Ellen Finkelstein is hosting across the next eight weeks, and over 500 people couldn’t find anything better to do with their time than to listen to me. It was a very good experience for me for several reasons—chief among them the importance of learning an important lesson over and over again. I was at risk of taking for granted one of my most precious mantras…until I encountered hundreds of people who had not heard it before. My audience helped infuse a  freshness and a new vitality into the idea that I probably couldn’t have achieved on my own. That, in turn, warrants a reiteration here in print…for the fourth time.

What if a law were passed prohibiting bullets from exceeding three words in length? Could you abide by it? Perhaps not, but humor me on this one, because it stands as one of the best exercises you can do, whether you are the presenter, the content creator, or both. The value of this is so high thanks to two universal axioms for presentation professionals:

1. If a slide contains complete sentences, it is practically impossible for even the most accomplished presenters to avoid reading them word for word.
2. And when you read your slides word for word, you sound like an idiot.

Here is a classic culprit, taken straight from my client files—in this case, a major pharmaceutical company. Somebody simply did an idea dump right into his or her slides, and anyone who tries to speak to this slide is doomed to become a drone and guaranteed to turn the audience members into zombies.

The fourth bullet is quite different than the first three, suggesting that it shouldn’t be a bullet at all. But set that aside for the moment — before you read on, I want you to clean up this slide by mentally reducing each bullet point down to three words. Ditch the adjectives, jettison the pronouns, eliminate the flotsam.

Even with your sharpest knife, you might not be able to cut all the way down to three words, but the reward is in the effort. Here is my attempt at what I refer to as the Three-Word Challenge.

You can see that I failed to get within three words in most cases, but the result of my losing effort is an unqualified victory. The slide is much stronger now, and even though I have no familiarity with the subject, having gone through this process, I feel as if I could almost present on it now.

Several important things take place when you make an earnest attempt to get within three words:

  • Your slides are friendlier: With just that one task, you create slides that are much easier on the eyes of your audience. Eye fatigue is the silent killer of presentations. When you ask your audience to sit in a dimly-lit room for 30 or 60 minutes, their eyes are going to be the first to go. The more words each slide contains, the quicker the onset of fatigue. Fewer words, less fatigue. Your bullets might not be as descriptive, but that’s okay—it’s your job to do the describing.
  • Your pace improves. Something almost magical happens when you reduce the amount of words on a slide. Everything seems snappier. The slide draws more quickly, audience members absorb the information more efficiently, and you most likely project more energy.
  • You create intrigue: In three words, you are not going to be able to fully explain your points. But that’s not bad; it’s good. In fact, it’s terrific! Without having to ask them, you invite audience members to use their imaginations. Once you get good at the three-word rule, you will become a better writer of bullets. You will begin to write with color and humor; you could become coy, even mysterious. These literary techniques serve to command attention. They help to engage your audience on an emotional level. And that, dear reader, is the holy grail of presenting.
  • You learn your material better: Of the many bad things associated with dumping complete sentences onto slides, perhaps the worst is how lazy it makes the presenter, whether it is you or someone for whom you create slides. Excess verbiage sends a subtle but powerful message that you don’t need to prepare as much, because everything you want to say is already there. Parsing the words increases your burden as a presenter, but once again, this is a noble burden. Adhering to the three-word rule forces you to learn your content at a level you otherwise might not have reached.

One of my favorite quotes about presenting comes from Mark Twain:

“If you want me to speak for an hour, I am ready today. If you want me to speak for just a few minutes, it will take me a few weeks to prepare.”

The three-word challenge is a microcosm of the wonderful dynamic that Twain articulated. In order to get down to three words, you really need to study the text. You need to truly understand what you intend to communicate and you need to pick three words that create the perfect backdrop for your ideas. Getting down to three words requires that you practically get intimate with your text.

While the second of these two slides is certainly a better place for your audience to be in than the first, the most significant point to make is the potential that the second slide creates. Now, perhaps for the first time ever, you, the content creator, have an opportunity to think like a slide designer. With all of that flotsam on the slide, what chance did you have previously to create an attractive slide? How could you be evocative? How could you stir emotion? You couldn’t!

But now you have a canvas; you have white space. And it doesn’t require an advanced degree in visual communications to find a stock photo or company image that might support your message. In this particular exercise, it took my pharma clients barely a half-hour to reach this point:

In our workshop that day, we had already discussed the value of creating semi-transparent shapes to better blend imagery with text and this was a perfect opportunity to use that technique: the text lower-left is in a rounded rectangle, filled black with 50% transparency, allowing the photo to show through but still ensuring good contrast. You only see one rounded corner because the rectangle is hanging over the edge of the slide. Margin controls on the shape ensure that the text appears centered in the visible space. There is also the question of the fourth point, the “Who owns the decision?” question. Changing it to italic and separating it with a simple white rule serves to reinforce its role as the summarizer of the ideas. Having eliminated the bullet character from these bullets helps, too.

This slide becomes a completely different experience for everyone involved in the equation—the content creator, the presenter, the audience member. The content creator gets to think creatively (perhaps for the first time); the brevity of the text allows the presenter (again, perhaps for the first time) to get out from under the slide and truly communicate directly to the audience; the audience member is more likely to feel the weight of the message. Photos help that cause, just because of the way that our brain receives and processes visual information, but the most important part of the equation is the presenter being able to tell a more impactful story, delivered from the burden of all of that text on screen.

So why doesn’t every organization create slides this way? Why doesn’t every boss see its value? At the Presentation Summit this October,  I will devote an entire keynote address to this question. Here is the digest:

  • Bad handouts: The revised slide will not function well at all as a leave-behind document. Good. Great! You should never try to create one slide for these two purposes. See my post, The Lunacy of the Leave Behind for my rant on this topic.
  • Won’t work as an emailed presentation: Same problem, same response—you shouldn’t try to have it both ways. Bite the bullet and create a second version.
  • The boss refuses: This, of course, is the far greater challenge and victory here is a marathon, not a sprint. Changing company culture is never easy, and we will devote a post to just this topic later in the year, after the Summit. In short, be patient, be persistent, seek allies, and be ready to conduct an intervention.

In the case of idea slides, less is so much more. Taking the three-word challenge is one of the best devices to get you to less. It took four passes and over 45 minutes to create the distilled version of the slide above. Mark Twain would have been proud.

10 thoughts on “Three Words…For a Fourth Time”

  1. Jane McCaskill

    Could you please convert this article into an eight-foot banner for me so I can HANG IT IN MY MANAGER’S OFFICE??

  2. As an administrative person I have created presentations that I would have been able to make better but reserved feedback to the manager that requested the presentation. Maybe now I will be more prepared to help them look and sound better in the future.

  3. Carol Straubing

    My boss is already planning changes to his presentation that he is to give next week and I think it will change how he does them in the future. We will work to make the presentations look better following these principles.

  4. Pingback: Public Speaking Tips and Techniques #83

  5. Well said, “You create intrigue: In three words, you are not going to be able to fully explain your points.”

    Booyah to two versions! So often speakers include extra info on slides because they want it to be a resource post-presentation. A second version to post online/email or to handout resolves that concern.

  6. It is neither useful not possible to apply your rule to many scientific and engineering presentations. Often what the audience wants and needs to see is the detailed proof of a mathematical theorem, or the equations for a physics experiment, or the structure of a molecule. Do you expect a few 3-word bullets and the speaker somehow verbally describes a complex mathematical formula?

  7. Douglas, I appreciate your point of view. In that situation, I would argue that the best purpose of slides is to serve as a roadmap. If I were an engineer in the audience, I would much prefer to be examining that detailed proof or molecular structure from a printed handout positioned on my desk than from a projection 30 feet away. I have yet to find a situation in which an audience member absorbs complex information better from reading a screen than from reading a printout.

    In saying this, of course, I open myself all sorts of “I can think of one” responses — so go ahead, let me have it…!

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