Dupe and Mask

I came across this idea on the TED blog. It’s a concrete solution to the universal problem of writing slides with way too many words on them, and then reading them.

First, a quick review of presentation tips.

To start, never read your slides, ever. Everyone in your audience can read, so why are you reading for them? Reading your slides is the best way to get people to disengage, and it also disempowers you as the speaker—you want us to pay attention to you and to what you say, and you don’t want to fight it out with your slides.

Second, if you’re giving (versus sending) a presentation, limit yourself to six words per slide. Yes, six. If this idea is new to you, check out Seth’s famous post on Really Bad Powerpoint. I know you’re telling yourself this is impossible, that there’s no way you could write a whole presentation with six words per slide (and great images). But it isn’t: one idea per slide, described by a great image with up to six words, is possible and powerful. Give it a shot.

And finally, if you’re putting more than six words on a slide, and you’re not going to read them, what do you do? Here’s where the dupe and mask comes in. The example on the TED blog is of a busy webpage in which the presenter wants to focus in on just one thing – views of this talk, in this example.






You could do this for any busy slide, and it’s a visual reminder to only present one idea per slide. Even if you don’t literally gray out 90% of the slide in your presentation, dupe and mask is a preparation tool to figure out the one idea this slide is here to communicate. Plus, it’s a great way to remember not to meander around, jumping from circle to circle, and fall back into the trap of sort-of-reading it.

A final suggestion is to keep things moving. Limit yourself to 20 seconds per slide. I just made that number up. It might be 25, or 30. It’s not two minutes though, unless you’re telling us a story (in which case you have all the time in the world). By keeping your internal clock attuned to how long you’ve spent on this one idea, you’re more likely to keep your audience with you by maintaining forward momentum.

What this all boils down to is this: your presentation is about the ideas you’re here to share. Whatever visual aids you bring as support should accentuate and illustrate, but they are not the story. You are the storyteller, and we’re hear to hear what you have to say.

To Whom Am I Speaking

If I’m stuck when developing a talk or a presentation, it helps me tremendously to remind myself of two fundamental questions:

  1. To whom am I speaking?
  2. What do I want them to walk away with from this talk?

Now, in practice, there are times when I feel inspired and the words (and accompanying slides) just come out.  Often those are the easiest talks to write.

But when I don’t have a bout of inspiration, it helps me a lot to take the deliberate step of thinking through the blanks in this sentence:

At the end of this talk, I want people to walk away understanding ______,  having learned ________, and feeling _______.

That’s a good starting point.  (And please, don’t forget the “feeling” bit.”)

The next big sticking point in that sentence is the word “people.”  Which people, exactly?

Rather than think about types or groups of people, increasingly I try to think of a specific person (or, at most, two) who I feel represents the most important audience-member to whom I want to speak.  That person doesn’t need to be physically present for the talk (though that helps), she just needs to be someone I know well enough to allow me to look at what I’m planning to say and ask myself, “would she find this engaging?  How should I say this in a way that connects with her worldview and where she is coming from?  What points would I make, and how would I make them, in a way that would resonate with and move her?”

Without this, I’m just writing for me, and, problematically, I find most of what I’m interested in interesting.


I’ve been known to be a stickler about slides.  Ask anyone I work with, they’ll agree (too quickly).

For a few years when I was a kid, I got interested in magic.  I’d walk up the flight of stairs to Tannen’s Magic Shop in New York City – always dark in there – and be wowed by the guys behind the counter.  I’d go home with a few new tricks to practice and a handful of simple props to master.

I never had the discipline to get good at it, but I stuck with it long enough to learn that you could have a giant red plastic thumb on your hand that a person two feet away from you wouldn’t notice; that getting someone to pick the card you want them to take really isn’t that hard; and that what you say, the eye contact you make, and how you engage with your audience are more important than what you physically do with the cards or the props.

Many years later, I’ve come to believe that the best presentations are like magic.  They engage, they captivate, they engross.  Included in that is just a bit of illusion: attention to detail, the occasional moment of, “Hey, how did she do that?”, and never letting them see the man behind the curtain.

Of course the slides shouldn’t be the “wow,” you should.

But anything that pulls people away,  anything that makes it harder for people to understand the story you’re telling or the points you want them to walk away with, breaks the spell.  That’s why we sweat the small stuff, in our slides, in our words, in the stories we tell.

Without magic, you’re just standing up there presenting, just like everyone else.


Here’s a reasonable-sounding process to go through when prepping for a big presentation:

  1. Figure out what you want to say
  2. Write this up in slides, with some combination of words, charts, and images
  3. Refine those slides
  4. Rehearse the presentation
  5. Present

Unfortunately this doesn’t work.

What happens is that slides that were going to become better, the slides that had too many words that you were going to fix….they make their way into your “draft” presentation.  Then you fall into the trap of presenting your slides instead of presenting your story – the slides start to win.  Unless you have the gumption to throw out half or all of these slides at this point, your goose is cooked.

Another approach is 1-4-5-2-3.  That is, figure out what you’re going to say, work on that (no slides), and then rehearse it with your colleagues.  You can even stand up like everyone else does in rehearsals, and have a single slide projected, with the title of your presentation and nothing else.  Use the rehearsal to refine the story, and then create slides that support your story.

The reason the first approach seems like it will work  is because we think writing slides is a shorthand version of writing a Word doc, but it’s not.  We also get so distracted by slide creation that we underplay the value of standing in front of people and telling them, very simply, the story we want to tell.

Slides are nothing more and nothing less than a visual aid to support your story.  If you go about creating them the normal way, you’ll end up with a story to support your slides, instead of the other way around.

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Everything I really needed to know about presentations…

…I learned from a band that plays for 5 year olds.

I had a wonderful summer evening with my family, listening to the much-acclaimed (by my kids) Jeffrey and the Bossy Frog Band play an outdoor free concert as the sun went down.  It was great.

Here’s a list of things that Jeffrey gets right:

  • Engage your audience from the get-go.  Get them to answer questions.  Get them to stand up. Get them to participate.
  • Have a really cool name.  Even if you’re just one guy with a bunch of blow-up dolls, be more than just a guy on stage with a banjo.
  • Be wildly enthusiastic.  Love what you do.
  • Never apologize, qualify, or otherwise stall.  Jump right in.
  • Tell stories.
  • Treat your audience with respect.
  • Have a message that everyone in the audience (no matter how much or little they know about what you’re doing) will understand.  For example, count how many pieces a flute has and then put it together.
  • Never shoot down a comment from the audience.  A person participating is a person who’s engaged.  (Even if they shout out “frog!” when you ask for their favorite kind of bug)
  • Be a master of your craft.
  • Thank your hosts,  and be genuine about it.
  • Tell people what they can do if they love you.  “Buy a CD, go to my website to see where my next gig is.”

You can get all this stuff and more from Garr Reynolds or Seth Godin or just by paying really close attention watching TED talks.  Or you can just pay more attention the next time you go to a great kids’ show.

We get so wrapped up in our elaborate content and message and the fact that we’re giving a speech that we absolutely forget that creating enthusiasm, interest, energy and connection with the audience isn’t optional, ever, no matter what you do and how sophisticated a message you want to communicate.

Go ahead, prep and deliver your presentation as if you’re talking to a bunch of 5-year olds.  I bet it will get better.

(And, just for kicks, here’s Rives’ 4-minute riff, “If I controlled the Internet.”)

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