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.

More or less, but not the same

There’s lots of stuff out there about how to make really great powerpoint (and about terrible PowerPoint).  What I’ve observed is that people read these great suggestions and think “I could never do that” (which isn’t true) and use that conclusion to do nothing different.  Because the leap to “No more than six words on a slide.  EVER.” is a big one.

I’m actually a big believer in taking that leap, because once you leap, your audience has no choice but to listen to you, the presenter, instead of pretending that the most important thing up there is the slide (it isn’t).

On the assumption that lots of people won’t make the big leap (yet), here’s a baby step: the amount of words on your slide should NEVER be the same as the amount of words you say.

Ideally your slide has very few words and you have a lot of interesting stuff to say.  Another extreme would be that your slide is full of a lot of really rich content (I admit, I fear this really is “too many words”…) and you just say a few words and let people read.

But when you have a bunch of words and a bunch to say it is totally confusing to your audience.  Are they supposed to read or listen to you?  Not only do they not know, you don’t know!

Number of words you say ≠ Number of words on the slide

(And hopefully once you start down this path you’ll end up at 6-word slides.)

PowerPoint 2007 trick – customize menu

(this post is an aside, but I was happy to discover this and thought you might be too.  HT to Jan Schultink, who has taught me a LOT more about effective presentations than this….but this little nugget will make me happy for a long time.)

Admittedly, I should have figured this out myself a long time ago.  But I migrated to PowerPoint 2007 recently and use PowerPoint just infrequently enough that I’m not investing time to figure out how it works.

Generally I find this software infuriating and counterintuitive.  Microsoft undoubtedly knows what functions most people use most of the time, yet somehow it takes more and more clicks to find these useful functions.

The good news is you can very easily take your favorite buttons and put them permanently on the bar across the top.  Not by dragging (which would be easier and much more intuitive), but it is just two steps if you know where to look.

Right click on the Start Menu and click on “Customize QuickAccess Toolbar”

STEP 2: Find the icons for things you do all the time, and move them to the list on the right.  Organize the list to your liking, and voila, you’re finished.

While this is trivial, I suspect it will save me about 40 hours over the course of the next year.  Thanks, Jan!

Visual aids and crutches

Two of the best, most natural presentations I’ve given have been in the last two weeks – one of them I was coming off of 24 hours of travel and 3 weeks in India with a presentation (slides) but absolutely no real preparation; the other was a completely impromptu one hour talk with no supporting slides at all.

I think I made a mistake about a year ago in over-preparing for most of my talks – I ended up burying my personality, the spontaneous directions the talk could go, and my connection to the audience.  I couldn’t be more thankful for the friend who, about a year ago, cared about me so much that she walked straight up to me after a talk and said, “Sorry man, that just wasn’t that good.”

All of this made me think that I need to practice giving six different kinds of talks:

  • With and without slides
  • Scripted and unscripted
  • Rehearsed and unrehearsed

The food for thought part is:  if every talk you give has slides and is scripted and rehearsed, you might want to ask, “Are the slides there as visual aids, or are they a crutch?”  There are five other kinds of talks you can give.  And since nothing’s more attractive than earned confidence, why not start practicing these other kinds of talks today?

(and for those of you keeping track, yes I recognize that it’s hard to imagine a talk that is “without slides, unscripted and rehearsed” but I’m pretty sure you get my drift.  And while I’m adding postscripts, I’ll put one more reminder for me and for you: it’s never, ever better to read a script.)


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Why do you read?

You’re reading this blog right now.  Why?

It might be for entertainment, or a diversion.  Or it might be because you want some ideas about how to do things differently.

If you’re interested in doing things differently, you have to ask yourself: do I want just to be exposed to new ideas, or do I actually want to act differently (today, someday)?

If it’s about acting differently, what will it take to get you there?

It’s probably been two years since I read Seth Godin’s missive on Really Bad Powerpoint, and I’ve been carrying around his maxim of “No more than 6 words on a slide. EVER. ” since then.  I’ve also made a million excuses why this is a nice idea but it’s not realistic; why it doesn’t apply to my own storytelling.  Or I’ve said, “6 words per slide is a nice idea, but what he really means is fewer words per slide.  I can hack that.”  That’s a cop out.

Tomorrow, in a big, very visible, very important meeting, I’m giving a presentation that has 17 slides and 51 words.  I’m giving it a shot.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you might have thought it interesting to consider reorganizing your RSS feed, changing the way you write email or conduct conference calls, or practicing your storytelling.   If you’ve been reading Seth’s blog, you might have thought about getting a professional picture on Twitter, learning graphic design, or listening to your sneezers.

But are you stuck thinking “this idea might be interesting someday” or are you actually doing things differently?

Sometimes it takes a few tries to get there.  It took me more than two years to take the plunge on my next PowerPoint.  But you should be honest with yourself and ask if you’re reading as a passive observer or as someone who is going to act.

Go ahead, act.

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“Presentations” are Stories Too

A lot of people have trouble with PowerPoint presentations.

The first problem isn’t with the slides.  The first problem is that people think that “making a presentation” is something other than storytelling, and that their goal is something other than connecting with the audience.  Do yourself a favor: the next time you have to “present” something, DON’T start with a blank page in PowerPoint.  And don’t start with a few slides that you have pulled together for some other purpose.

Instead, take out a sheet of paper (or open a Word document), figure out what you want to say, and write it down.  Keep it simple and stick to the main points.  Make sure someone who hasn’t been elbow deep your work would understand and care about what you’re saying. Avoid acronyms and abbreviations.  Give specific examples.  Use anecdotes.  Tell stories.  Share of yourself.

Once you’ve figured out what you want to say, start writing slides.  Use pictures.  Don’t write out full sentences.  Take most of what you want to say and put it in the notes section as a script.  Then learn the script.

If your slides would make sense without you presenting them, then they’re not slides, they are handouts.  These are two very different things.

If the presentation matters, practice giving it a few times before the big day.  The point is for people to listen to you.  The slides are supporting you and the story, they are not the main attraction.

There’s a lot out there about making good PowerPoint slides, and a lot of it is instructive.  But no amount of slide-making wizardry will help you if you don’t know what point you’re trying to get across, what story you’re hoping to tell.