When giving presentations, the only rule that matters is the rule of attention

Recently I was discussing presentations with a friend who is a student. Although being asked to make a presentation is a fairly common part of the student experience, and he has a reasonable idea of what’s involved, nobody has ever taught him or his peers how to do it.

Because I spend more time thinking about presentations than is strictly healthy, I offered to write my friend an email, summarising my thoughts. But once I got started, it very quickly turned into a monster email, the kind that people tend to skim once and then write a quick one-line reply along the lines of “Thanks, that looks really interesting — I’ll come back to it when I have more time,” maybe because they’re intimidated by the sheer volume and content of it all. (Yeah, okay, this is really about me and how I procrastinate over reading emails that look like they will be hard work. You’re listening to WKLJ — the sound of guilty conscience.) Plus, numerous URLs turn email into hyperlink soup.

So instead of sending my friend an email, I wrote this blog post. It’s ostensibly about the mistakes students make when they give presentations, but really it’s about how the only rules you need to know about giving a good presentation are the ones about human attention.

Here are some common mistakes I see in student presentations:

* Not having practiced the presentation enough.
* Not knowing enough details of the story, including germane technical details/terminology/pronunciation.
* Not picking a topic that they actually find interesting
* Confusing slide preparation with presentation preparation.
* Putting too much information on each slide.
* Not thinking about what it will be like to be the audience for this presentation, rather than the presenter

Notice how ‘being nervous’ is not on that list. We understand that students will be nervous about giving a presentation — being nervous about doing something fairly new in front of other people is completely understandable, and aside from one or two freakish individuals who take to presenting as though they’ve been doing it all their lives, everyone’s in the same boat. So relax :)

None of those mistakes are really about what happens during the presentation: they are all about how students prepare for the presentation beforehand. My impression from several years of watching students give presentations is that they are quite relaxed about the preparation, then get scared when it comes to the presentation itself. But by the time you are ready to give your presentation, it’s too late to be nervous — because by then, you’ve either put in the work, or you haven’t. Preparation is worth being nervous about; standing up and talking isn’t.

Ignore all the ‘rules’ about how to structure your slides. For every rule, there will be at least one instance in which it is not valid. Knowing which rules to follow and which to break is mostly a matter of practice and experience — which you may not have. So ignore, or at least treat with extreme suspicion, anything that sounds like a rule. Common rules include:

* Use X lines of text/bullet-points per slide
* Plan one slide for every N seconds of your talk
* The 10/20/30 rule

These all sound perfectly sensible, but the trouble with rules is that people cling to them for reassurance, and what was originally intended as a guideline quickly becomes a noose. My opposition to putting reams of text on slides is well documented, but I bet there are presentations out there where that’s exactly what’s required — at least, on one or two slides. Likewise, having more than ten slides might be exactly what you need; hell, you might need a hundred. Rules stipulating the number of slides you should have, or how fast you should transition between them, conveniently ignore that these aspects of your presentation depend on (a) what you are talking about, (b) what’s on your slide, and (c) how long that takes your audience to apprehend. Rules about slides are rubbish, because they stop you from thinking critically about what — if anything — you need to show in support of the point you want to make.

Ready-to-fill slide layouts are just another kind of rule. When you open Powerpoint and Keynote, they instantly start making suggestions about the layout of your slides. Bullet-lists feature prominently. When was the last time you enjoyed a presentation that had page after page of bullet points? Once you’ve figured out the story you’re telling, think about how each point could best be conveyed visually, and about whether you even need slides or visual aids at all.

Concentrate on the rules of attention. The thing you most want during a presentation is people’s attention, so everything you do and say has to be about capturing that, and then keeping it. The rules of attention are more or less universal, easier to demonstrate empirically than rules about specific slide formats, and can be neatly summarised as follows: people get bored easily.

Some specific rules of attention are:

People can really only retain about four bits of new, unrelated information — and sometimes not even that many. Don’t overstuff your presentation, and take care to signpost the key points — visually, verbally, however you want.

It’s hard to process spoken and written words at the same time. Integrating your spoken words with pictorial slides makes it easier for the brain to process these two streams of information efficiently. This also helps your audience remember more of what you said.

A story will keep people’s attention, because they will want to know what happens next. At Playful ’09 last week, Tassos Stevens talked about the compelling nature of indeterminacy, and asked the question Once a ball has been thrown, is it possible to look away before you know whether someone catches it? If you don’t know what your story is, or don’t convey that story clearly to your audience, they won’t stay focused; as Hitchcock knew very well, it’s all about suspense.

People really like looking at screens. If you’ve ever been in a pub with the TV on and the sound off, you’ll know that screens are an attention-magnet. This is great when you’re giving your presentation and there’s something on the slide that you want people to look at, but not so great if they are still looking at the slide while you are talking about something else. There’s an easy fix — press B or W while in Slideshow mode: the screen will go black or white, respectively (this works in both Keynote and Powerpoint), and people’s attention will focus on you, because now you are the moving, shiny thing in the room. Toggle the same key when you’re ready to direct the audience’s attention to the screen again.

Sustaining audience attention requires frequent changes. Simon Bostock once tweeted something great about how flow is when you stop noticing the joins between one parcel of attention and the next; this is the state you want to induce in your audience. Paradoxically, in order to get them to concentrate on something for a long time, you need to keep changing the thing they’re paying attention to, or they will get bored. Change stuff mindfully: I don’t mean adding clip-art or unrelated animations to your slides, I mean introduce something seriously astonishing. (Unexpectedness is a brilliant tool for wrangling people’s attention.) Less dramatically, you could use changes in your tone of voice, speaking volume, or where you are standing to draw the audience’s attention to a particular point. Evaluate your slides and consider whether they could be less formulaic; consider introducing some audience participation to get everyone out of the you-talk-while-they-listen rut.

Your audience will tell you when their attention is wandering. Hopefully not out loud, and hopefully not by harshtagging your presentation. But you will know from looking at their faces where their attention is, and if it isn’t on you or your visual aids, you will know that you need to change something. Don’t be afraid to go a bit off-road in the service of keeping people interested; it’s a kindness and a courtesy to stay with your audience, and a presenter on auto-pilot is not a pretty sight.

There are so many more things I could write about attention and presentations, but this is already overlong. So yeah, last rule: short is good. Like I said, rules are for breaking.


Edit: There are some great additional points in the comments below.

Edit 2: Olivia Mitchell has written a great post about seven ways to keep your audience’s attention. We’re all about attention hacks here at finiteattentionspan!

[Marginalia: (1) Aesthetic is not a rule. Having a consistent look-and-feel (good colour palettes, consistent use of fonts and text size) can really elevate a presentation. (2) Constraints are not the same as rules. Obviously, most presentations will have a time-limit, and you need to respect that. And if you are doing Ignite or Pecha Kucha, there are some very specific constraints about slide timing (and, necessarily, about what goes on the slide, since viewing time is so short). But constraints are great news for creativity.]



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78 responses to “When giving presentations, the only rule that matters is the rule of attention

  1. PhilD

    That is *exactly* what I needed, many thanks. Mind if I pass this on to some of my fellow students and indeed some of my lecturers?

    • finiteattentionspan

      Thanks, and be my guest! Though tread carefully when sending lecturers unsolicited ‘how to’ material ;)

  2. 1) Know your stuff;

    2) Know your stuff well enough to be able to relate it to other stuff. This could be other stuff you don’t know; other stuff you are introduced to on-the-fly by a member of your audience. If you know YOUR stuff well enough, you can do this, regardless of the nature of the ‘other stuff’;

    3) Live enough of a life to have a story for every occasion, with a universal message at its core. It is astonishing how useful this can be as a fusion of entertainment and distraction (Note: Distraction can be a very positive force, particularly when you can squeeze some learning or perspective in through the back door);

    4) Do not rehearse yourself to death. You’re chatting about something you know inside-out, with a load of mates you haven’t met yet.

  3. The commonest – and deadliest – mistake we encounter in our work with clients (occasionally we work with postgrad students) is a temptation to dive straight into their content without first answering the question: what is my thesis – i.e. what is the fundamental point I’m trying to make with my content?

    Too often, presentations become an excuse for presenters to fling piles of content in the direction of the audience in the hope that the poor audience will succeed in the near-impossible task of working out the point behind it all. By contrast, content selected and arranged around a proposition avoids this problem, and results in a presentation that gains and maintains an audience’s attention.

    A thesis should be expressed in the form of a proposition – i.e. a sentence – the simpler and shorter the better! – that asserts or denies something about the content. ‘My holiday in Italy’ isn’t propositional; whereas ‘holidays in Italy are a nightmare’ is. It’s good to think of your proposition in the following way. Imagine you’re about to give your presentation when the fire-alarm suddenly goes off. Now you find yourself with only 30 seconds in which to sum up the point of your presentation – what you say in those 30 seconds should be your proposition.

  4. Stone me, in all my years of powerpointing I never discovered that B&W trick! Neat!

    • finiteattentionspan

      Heh! Glad to help out :)

    • Cal

      Me neither – brilliant. Thanks so much.

      • finiteattentionspan

        You’re very welcome :)

      • Perry McDowell

        The only problem with the ‘B’ and ‘W’ trick is that it ties you to the keyboard. I like to wander around when presenting, so I do the same thing by having a blank black slide between slides when I know I want to speak for a while and I want the audience on me and not my slide. This way, if I come to a place where I want to blank the screen, I don’t need to ensure I’m near the keyboard – I just advance the slides using the clicker, and the screen is blank.

        I’ve never used white because I think people are more likely to be watching it expecting something to pop up, but you could do the same with white if you want.

        • finiteattentionspan

          Hi Perry,

          Sorry, I think I missed your comment first time around!

          I prefer to be free from the keyboard if at all possible, but it depends on the set-up where I’m presenting/teaching. At the university, although there are some clickers, many rooms don’t have them.

          Your point about white is a really interesting one, and not something I’d thought about. I tend to use black as the visual ‘mute’ button if the background to my slides is dark, and white if the background to my slides is white or pale. But I do see what you mean about white. Hmm!



  5. Very nice.

    Your points about changing things up made me recall a question that has been on my mind for some time. You were mainly talking about sustaining attention within a talk, but I wonder about the general power of novelty.

    Could it be that when we compare the effectiveness of standard presentation styles with alternative designs (you own work, Michael Alley’s, Blokzijl & Andeweg’s,…) that some of the power of the alternative designs is due to the audience attending to novelty?

    • finiteattentionspan

      Thank you. And yes, absolutely — a colleague raised the same point a while back and I think it’s a really good question. On one level, I don’t really care as long as it works, but on the other, who am I kidding? I would love to conduct some more studies to get to the bottom of it …

  6. One of my favourite things is to take this type of thinking (and this clarity of expression) out of the classroom and into the bored room. Sorry, board room.

    Two things, though:
    1. Hyperlinks – I almost lost your thread a couple of times by wandering off after a bright, dangly thread on one of those links
    2. I now want to slap Guy Kawasaki repeatedly (not least for not having his name on his blog).


    • finiteattentionspan

      Thank you.

      And yes, I confess that I hyperlink — and make asides — way too often. It’s a bad habit and I fall victim to it on other people’s blogs all the time, so really shouldn’t visit it on people here!

      Re slapping Guy Kawasaki … well, I gather there’s a queue ;)

      • To be fair to Guy Kawasaki, his 10-20-30 rule is regarding presentations targeted towards the venture capital community.

        • finiteattentionspan

          Hi Bengt,

          That’s a fair point, but I think the ‘rule’ has been adopted much more widely than Guy’s original use of it. Which of course is not his fault! (And in fact testifies to his enormous personal success …) But I mentioned it in my post because it’s often cited as a ‘rule’ and I wanted to point out that being bound by any rule can make you inflexible about how you think about the focus of people’s attention during your talk.



      • @Isla_CH

        Actually I’ve been enjoying your various hyperlinks; many of these concepts are new to me, so the signposting is really helpful for learning more…

  7. MikeKSmith

    Here’s a story for students / presenters / interview candidates:

    I once witnessed several interview candidates give presentations at a very distinguished research establishment in the US. Each speaker had 45 minutes to present out of a 1 hour meeting slot and without fail each had approximately 40-50 slides prepared. The candidate would hurriedly present the first couple of slides – title slide and “who am I, where do I come from, what is this presentation about” and then quickly get into slide after slide of complex statistics trying to impress the audience with what clever research they had been doing. By about the time they reached slide 6 or 7 one of the senior staff at the establishment would stop them and quiz them for about 15 minutes on the context, background information, asking “why” questions around their chosen topic. You could sense the candidates squirming because they realised that they had another 40 slides to present and less than 20 minutes to do so…

    I don’t think the senior statisticians there were actually TRYING to be mean, but the lesson seemed to be this: If you’re going to tell a room full of experts what you’ve been doing for the last 3 years (or more) spend a decent amount of time bringing the room up to speed with the appropriate context and background. The experts in the room WON’T have sufficient time to really get to grips with the details of what you’re presenting (despite what you might think, or what they might say!) so spend more time talking about WHY what you’re saying is important and less time trying to impress them with complicated stuff that you (and they) can barely get their heads around. It’ll be much more impressive. And you’ll hold their attention much better. Strong introduction / rationale; strong conclusions addressing how this can be applied with the meaty technical stuff as filling in the middle. But don’t overdo the filling.


    • finiteattentionspan

      Thanks Mike — good story! Lots of people here definitely in favour of strong argument and less detail; great, strong message to send.


  8. The three A’s of modern presenting as I told them to Apple’s Keynote development team in June:

    1. Attention
    2. Authority
    3. Authenticity

    Break whatever rules others have set up to suit themselves and work hard to prove you have these for, and to your fourth A, your audience.

    • finiteattentionspan

      Hi Les,

      I love it — simple to remember, and highly adaptable.

      I like your blog, by the way. Thanks for stopping by :)


  9. Brilliant, Chris!
    You made your point with humor, elegance and generosity.

    1) I love your personal and self-derision style which requires lots of humility (not prevailing among presentation Gurus…)

    2) The elegance in the simplicity of your thesis
    “People get bored easily.”
    Again, great lesson of humility there to summarize
    years of doctorate research…
    We remember that there is no “formule magique”, nor “easy recipe for successful presentation”. We need to use our brain, our creativity and our heart too…

    3) Your generosity.
    Your are clearly focused on your audience.
    It’s wonderful to see the time and energy you spend to answer one of your students’ needs. How many presenters actually think of how their audience could learn from their presentation, what they could expect from it?
    The result is your first comment: “That is *exactly* what I needed, many thanks. Mind if I pass this on to some of my fellow students and indeed some of my lecturers?” (I like the “and indeed some of my lecturers”…)
    I bet these qualities make you an excellent teacher.
    They are what I personally most value in speakers.
    (…plus I like long posts, when they’re as good as yours, and love hyperlinks, like little gifts to open)

    • finiteattentionspan

      Hi Marion,

      Thank you for your very kind comments! And I’m trying to become a better teacher … I’ve had some really excellent role models (including my martial arts instructor, who really deserves a post of his own).

      The thing with attention is that once you start thinking about it, you get sucked in to this HUGE topic and realise that it’s one of those ‘spend the rest of your life trying to figure it out’ things. So I’m approaching it in small steps … ;)


  10. This is a good post! But… to start with it comes across all negative – lots of don’ts: I was so pleased to get to the positive bits!

    I am amazed – really REALLY amazed – how often people use multiple fonts and sizes in a single presentation. For me, an inconsistent design looks unprofessional, and switches me off before the speaker evens starts.

    I’m bound to have more thoughts later … !

    • finiteattentionspan


      Yeah, I’m not in love with the structure of a post that requires the reader to wade through negative to get to positive. I was sort of wrestling with the need to identify and catalogue the extent of the problem with student presentations and then talk about the solution; an earlier draft of this post became unimaginably wordy as I tried to describe how to overcome each of the student mistakes (when really, most people can probably figure out what those look like, or have seen them for themselves). So yeah, still learning, still working out how to be more readable!

      The fonts thing is pretty common in academia (though I’d expect it less in business); I’m not sure how much of that is “don’t know” and how much is “don’t care”.

      More thoughts always welcome :)

  11. “The trouble with rules is that people cling to them for reassurance, and what was originally intended as a guideline quickly becomes a noose….
    Rules about slides are rubbish, because they stop you from thinking critically about what — if anything — you need to show in support of the point you want to make.”

    These were the sections that leapt out at me. I’m a software testing consultant and I’m currently writing an article about the effect of formal testing standards on testers and their behaviour.

    The more I read and thought about the matter the more I realised that my gut feelings based on experience were right and that imposing rigid, mandatory standards on experienced professionals does become a “noose”. What is a valuable crutch for novices becomes at best an irrelevance and at worst a menace for the experienced. The Dreyfus Model of skills acquisition neatly articulates my views.

    I’ve been interested seeing how pyschology can improve my understanding of how software testing should work, and I enjoyed reading your piece and seeing how your arguments can translate to my field.

    Software development, like crafting a presentation, is a creative process and not a manufacturing process that can be rigidly defined. Flexibility, insight and understanding the users/audience and their context are all crucial, and rigid rules or instructions are out of place. Guidelines for beginners are another matter, but these should not be fossilised into standards or rules.

    • finiteattentionspan

      Hi James,

      Thanks for your very thoughtful comment (and for introducing me to Dreyfus, which I hadn’t come across before). The issue of rules being constrictive/restrictive to experienced professionals is a really interesting one, because I also see it at the opposite end of the scale, among beginners. Obviously the key difference is that beginners do need some kind of structural scaffold or support; but I think we often fail to acknowledge that the nature of that early support can seriously constrain the possibilities apparent to a beginner, and restrinct their later development. A proficient presenter may still lean heavily on bullet-points because nobody ever discussed story or visual attention with him.

      I’m sorry – this is a very ill-formed reply; I’m eating lunch between teaching sessions … I absolutely agree with you that having formal standards can be a real millstone (it’s a constant thorn in the side of academia in terms of developing students’ critical thinking skills, etc.). I’d be interested to read about your experiences; have you written about them anywhere? (If not, maybe you should start a blog … :-)

      Kind regards,


  12. Thanks for the insights Chris, I particularly value your ‘rules’ on attention.

    Most of my work with corporate trainers is encouraging them to ditch presentation software altogether, although I understand the traditions of our worlds are different ;)

    Have you seen the Death By PowerPoint slideshow on http://www.slideshare.net

    It’s is compelling, especially the slides around using compelling imagery.

    Thanks again for blogging your thoughts so the rest of us can benefit along with your students.


    • finiteattentionspan

      Hi Ally,

      Thanks for your kind comments. I’m absolutely into people ditching their slideware if it’s just getting in the way of learning (as it so often does). I’m not sure whether you’d ever prise it out my hands completely, since a lot of what I do is show pictures/diagrams of the brain, and talk about them; but I should probably never say never! Maybe when I finally get the students to act out the key roles of the brain’s two hemispheres …

      I frickin’ ADORE that slideshare presentation – many thanks, because I’d actually forgotten it existed, and now I’m going to share it with my students :)



      • What I find interesting about SlideShare is that it is an entirely different medium than a live presentation.

        That Death by PowerPoint slidedeck is great in SlideShare, but would be terrible in a live presentation.

        Similarly, in main business contexts people expect a printout of the slidedeck as a takeaway. If you are going to read a slidedeck, that is a very different presentation than using it as background.

        For a live presentation, I think you want the slides to be a visual prop to emphasize the points you are trying to make.

        People accept a document as something you read, but have very different expectations for a slidedeck.

        • finiteattentionspan

          Hi Doug,

          Isn’t it interesting? Slideshare feels like a whole ‘nother medium in its own right.
          Personally I love Slideshare — and I agree with you that the Death By Powerpoint presentation would really lose something if it were to be presented live.

          I don’t know to what extent there is overlap between ‘slides that support a good live presentation’ and ‘slides that work on Slideshare’; it’s an interesting space.

          I loathe giving copies of my slides as a ‘takeaway’; I feel that if this works, my slides were probably too wordy. I’d usually rather write a separate document if background information is required.

  13. Hi Chris – I’ve emailed you about this discussion. Just letting you know in case my email gets bounced by a spam filter.

  14. Many thanks for this post, great content – throughout I was either going “thats what I do” and “I should do that”!

    I have an unsolicited suggestion (feel free to ignore). Feels like there are at least three blog posts poured into one here. I gave myself a rule a while back (which I don’t always adhere to) about 400 words max per post. Then came across this via @steverubel http://mnmlist.com/the-400-word-promise/

    Dont know what is it about blogs, but reading a longer piece in one doesn’t feel right, and threatens my (very) finite attention :)

    Again, thanks for the post and the great links on twitter.

    • finiteattentionspan

      Hi Warren

      Thank you for your lovely comments and great feedback. I’m so pleased you brought up the word-count issue; it’s something I think about a lot. I see a lot of people blogging ‘short and sweet’, and more often; my style here seems to be more about ‘big and tending-towards-complete info-dump’ (though I hope at least it’s an organised info-dump ;))

      I have really mixed feelings about this. On the one hand: attention — as you rightly point out. That’s kind of a biggie. On the other (and perhaps this is is my scientific background speaking), I always want to rehearse the whole argument. It feels weird and incomplete to me to just present one part and then say “and tomorrow I will talk more about this and tell you what you can do about it”; I don’t know whether that’s about me not liking an open loop, or having a fear that tomorrow, people won’t come back and read the other bit. I guess I want to tell the whole story at once, and I want people to know not just what the ‘problem’ is, but how to fix it. That said, if I put my teaching hat on, not closing the loop is a potentially powerful tool for getting people to reflect on what might happen next. If you know you will still have their attention again later; blogging, I always wonder how big that ‘if’ is.

      Food for thought! Thank you. I continue to debate this in my head and all further feedback is very welcome.



      • Warren Pearce

        Thx for responding Chris.

        I am no expert but wondering if the text layout in blogging platforms is part of the problem. Typesetting seems to be widely spaced on WordPress etc, making longer posts into more of a scroll-a-thon than they should be.

        Opening up a knowledge gap then filling it is maybe the best strategy for blogging, agree with you about that ‘if’.

        Could always follow the presentation advice about writing a document to avoid info-dump. When @triplewicky had this problem on a blog, think the embedded longer essay worked v well http://regenerationem.wordpress.com/2009/07/21/evidence-based-policy-making-getting-more-from-a-shrinking-envelope/

        Could go on, but should probably only do that on my own blog :)

        • AndreaJWenger

          The prevailing wisdom now is that readers don’t mind scrolling through a blog. The word count recommendations are based on reader attention span.

          In this case, Chris has a compelling voice that moves the reader forward. I would be disappointed if the posts were broken up purely on the basis of satisfying a word count guideline.

      • I would disagree with the comment about short series of posts: there is no way I would have been linked to this 3 years later if it was a series of posts. Of course it being 3 years later there will be little interest in discussion, but the important guidelines about presentations are still there.

        • Hi :) Thanks for commenting! I think that’s a really interesting point, about the “much later” purpose of the post and its long-term value on the internet. I’d never thought about it in that context, but I agree with your assessment (maybe there’d be less of an issue there if the posts were all handily interlinked, so you could just hook people up with the first in the series and let them get on with it?). Thanks for that perspective, and for stopping by.

          • Mags13

            I concur. I’m putting together presentation skills training for some new engineers. I’m not an academic, was a corporate trainer in a past life and got the task because they like my presentations… Thought I’d not rely on my ability to do a presentation, but to actually do some research so to avoid leading folks “astray”. I rarely, if ever read blog posts; so glad I read this one! Original post was brilliant and useful, as are the ensuing comments. thank you!

  15. Pingback: Public Speaking Tips [2009-11-07]

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  17. If possible, wandering is good! Totally agree with Perry re being ‘tied to the keyboard’, it’s another one of those things which sounds minor but can be really offputting if someone’s repeatedly prodding at the keys during their preso.

    If a discussion takes off during a presentation, I’ve seen blanking the screen be very effective. If possible, the Kensington presenter is a great tool for this: http://bit.ly/235bl

    • finiteattentionspan

      Nice kit … though I am ALLERGIC to laser pointers! They have much the same effect on humans as they do on cats.

  18. Pingback: 7 ways to keep audience attention during your presentation : Speaking about Presenting

  19. Doug

    Hey Chris,

    I’m currently a senior marketing major in college and so giving presentations is something I do pretty much on a weekly basis. I like to think that I’ve learned how to present by now, but I was looking for pointers that I could incorporate into my presentations next semester. Thus, I stumbled on your post.

    I agree with you 100% on this article. It amazes me that even now, after almost 2+ years of having to give presentations, some of my classmates don’t know how to give a presentation. In high school I used to be nervous about presenting, and when I got to college I was nervous when teachers would say a presentation had to be X amount of minutes. I quickly learned that as long as I know the subject at hand I can easily talk about it for however long I need to. Typically my PowerPoints aren’t longer than 7-10 slides and only have 3-5 bullet points on them. But then some of these kids get in front of the class time after time and have paragraphs of information. And, to top it off they usually read straight from the slide. When looking at a slide with paragraphs, my mind goes completely numb. It is too much to read the word after word AND listen simultaneously.

    So this got me thinking to how we’ve learned to give presentations. Looking back on my middle school and high school years, I realized I had never been taught to give a presentation. Presentations were meant for us to become comfortable speaking in front of people. It didn’t matter what we said or how we went about saying it, as long as we did it.

    Then, I thought about how we learned to use PowerPoint. I can remember the first time using the program. We were all taken to a computer lab and sat down at our own computer. Open PowerPoint, type your name, now click on animations. The focus of teaching us how to use PowerPoint was teaching us how to use nauseating animations, multi colored background, and how to change the font colors. Nobody taught us how to effectively use these, or not to use these. In the real world, nobody wants to watch a presentation where every letter fades onto the screen, and then swivels off. It is best to keep presentations simple and too many people fail to realize that its more about quality and less about fancy animations.

    Sorry about the long post, its a mix between my 2 cents and my ranting.


    • finiteattentionspan

      Hi Doug,

      Please don’t apologise for your long and thoughtful comment! And please accept my apologies for taking a while over Christmas to get around to replying.

      You raise a really excellent point here: learning how to present and how to use slides are completely different skills, and most institutions focus on the latter, assuming it will somehow influence the former. But as we all know, no amount of expertise at creating animations or changing the slide colours is going to substitute for an engaging presentation. (Good animation can control our attention, but I don’t think that’s foremost in the mind of everyone using animations.)

      You are absolutely right that, regardless of the time allotted, if you know the material then you can busk for that exact length of time (and in fact if you set up quite simple slides then this becomes even easier). I don’t really understand why more people don’t get this, but perhaps it comes down to practice — not something students necessarily have.

      I’m intrigued by how often you guys have to do presentations in class, but I suppose that presentations are a core element of marketing, in that you need to be able to pitch your ideas confidently.

      Thanks for your comments and for stopping by!


      • dubvdoug

        Hello, again! Thanks for taking the time to respond to my comment.

        Since you were intrigued by how many presentations I have to do for class, I thought I’d explain. Generally, I have four or five classes in a semester, most of them either require a presentation once a month, or a larger presentation at the end of the semester.

        This past semester I took a special topics course. My teacher focused a lot on presenting in different situations. We would present every week or two and each was different. Sometimes we would be allowed to use PowerPoint, sometimes we had to make our own visuals and were forbidden to use PowerPoint.

        The professors want us to be able to adapt to different situations and not get too comfortable with one method.

        Happy New Year


        • Hi Doug

          Happy New Year to you too :)

          Thanks for taking the time to explain how things work at your institution: that’s really interesting. I particularly like that you have to give your presentations under different sets of constraints (e.g. using PowerPoint or not); I think this is great preparedness for what actually happens in real life, and it’s nice when school prepares you for that!

          Somewhere in the last decade or so it kind of became a presumption that if you were going to give any kind of presentation, it would by default involve PowerPoint … I think we need to revise our assumptions and I’m really pleased to hear your profs are on top of that :)



  20. Your points about the problems with student presentations which include teacher presentations are on target. My students who must make presentations experience many of these problems. The key one for me is the difficulty of putting yourself in your audience’s place. It is something that I still struggle with.

    I have been using PowerPoint to teach ESL for some time and find many of the prescriptions from the gurus don’t fit. When I use PowerPoint in a class, I like to share it with the students because the understanding may only come after viewing it again and even again. Also, with the reasssurance that the slides will be available, they don’t get so focused on note taking that they miss out on the points being made.

    Like other people, I like to move around in class and after I bought a remote, I felt more in touch with my class and able to pay much better attention to them and get an idea when they were attentive or lost.

    • Hi John,

      Many thanks for your comment. I think language teaching is a really interesting case for presentations, because a lot of the material (vocabulary and the rules of grammar, for example) is going to be stuff that students need to take away with them in some form; re-reading, as you say, is going to be critical. I don’t know if it would help to consider creating a wholly separate document that gives more of the details? But I also agree from experience that if students know the slides will be available, they panic less about notetaking and seem to pay more attention to the actual ‘story’ of the class.

      I really covet a remote! We don’t always have them in the teaching rooms. Being able to wander around is so useful — forms much more of a connection.



      • John

        I bought my own remote about a year and a half ago and consider it one of the best purchases of technology I have made. I later found out I can sign one out from the college, but I like having my own. It wasn’t terribly expensive. I bought the cheapest one in the office supply store, Targus Wireless Presenter with Laser Pointer. I just have to remember to remove the usb receiver after each class.

  21. Pingback: Giving Better Presentations « LaTeX for Humans

  22. Great post Chris,

    I totally agree with using powerpoint to engage your students and work colleagues during your presentation. Keeping their attention throughout the whole presentation is one of the hardest things to do.

    I like to move around the room when delivering my presentation, so also found I needed a wireless presenter to move my slides to the next one. By using the remote I am still able to keep their attention easily without having to muck around trying to use the laptop back and forward keys. I also have the Targus Wireless presenter with laser pointer I find it very easy to use and it fits in your hand nicely. The laser pointer is really handy for highlighting what you’re talking about as well.

    Thanks again for the great tips in your blog post I found it very useful!

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  28. With almost everything that appears to be building inside this specific area, many of your points of view are fairly stimulating. Getting said that, I am sorry, because I can not subscribe to your entire theory, all be it exhilarating none the less. It looks to everyone that your commentary are not completely validated and in reality you’re generally your self not totally confident of the point. In any case I did enjoy reading through it.

  29. These rules are great in their potential for improving presentations, and Tufte’s Wired article on the negative impact of PowerPoint is dead on. I am torn between thinking that we need to maximize the quality of any PowerPoint presentation and wondering whether informational meetings should be banned—which would eliminate most of the need for PowerPoint.

    • Hey Sudha,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, and sorry it’s taken me a while to reply.

      I think we definitely need to move away from the “PowerPoint as default” way of thinking about presenting. I wonder whether banning it (while tempting) would just lead to unconfident, time-pressed presenters finding another crutch instead. It feels like there’s a nice back-to-basics movement about storytelling growing out of some of the last few years’ work by Garr Reynolds, Nancy Duarte et al … I hope this will continue to grow and flourish :)



  30. Chris,

    Can’t believe I’ve never come across your stuff before. Someone sent me a link to your talk on cognitive load and went on from there.
    All really useful stuff.

    • Hi Bill,

      Sorry, I’m not sure I replied to this before! Thank you for your very kind comments, and I’m thrilled if it’s been of use! Thanks for the connection on Twitter, too :)



  31. Great post.

    I recently gave a talk on how to give a research talk and my main message was “When you start a talk you have the audience’s attention; keep it, and go for their interest.” Next time I might work in some of your excellent tips on how to do the “keep it” part.

    Less seriously, regarding your claim that “For every rule, there will be at least one instance in which it is not valid” I really hope that this isn’t one of the instances it isn’t valid. :)

    • Hi Mark,

      Thanks for your lovely comments! You made me laugh with your last observation — hmm, I hadn’t thought of that! Now I feel I should disappear in a puff of logic, or something.

      Thanks so much for stopping by :)


  32. Greetings! Very helpful advice in this particular post!
    It is the little changes which will make the largest changes.

    Many thanks for sharing!

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