PowerPoint Tips: The Problem of the 90 Word Slide


Some weeks ago I ran a ‘presentation techniques’ workshop for some very experienced presenters. I was pretty surprised to be asked to include a session on PowerPoint. ‘Really?’ I said ‘won’t they all know that stuff?’ ‘No’ said the client ‘we’ve really got a problem with it’. ‘Send me an example’ I said. She did. They really did have a problem

PowerPoint: What’s the problem?

Well in this case it could be summed up in one phrase; ‘cut and paste’. What these guys were doing was cutting and pasting text from written documents into PowerPoint slides. In one classic example they had a slide with 90 words (yep NINETY!!!). And no animation. Now, at the risk of stating the obvious, there are a number of problems with a 90 word slide. First, in order to get 90 words on a slide the largest font size you can use is 22. Not the easiest read. Second, all that text and not animated. The boredom level must have been through the roof (and that’s without factoring in that – as they confessed – yes, they did read the slides aloud. Word for word). I could go on, but you get the picture

Now, these were clever, professional people. And like many clever, professional people they are short on time. Most importantly (for the purposes of this story) their presentations were primarily about sharing information provided by a third party, and often at short notice (so they weren’t always familiar with the content; hence the 90 words issue)

But they did know their PowerPoint presentations were not serving them well. What to do? Well, as you might know if you’ve read any of my other blogs on effective presentation techniques, I’ve done a fair amount of research on what makes effective presentations errr effective.  What better then than to share what the experts say and then work out what we could apply? So that’s what we did and this is the outcome:


OK, so the start point had to be getting rid of some of that text. Why? Because people are conditioned to read what they are given to read and when they are reading, they’re not listening to you. You might as well leave the room. Now.  But, even if you have people in your audience who can read and listen at the same time there’s still a problem. The average person can read at 250wpm; and the average person can talk at 150wpm. So, as the presenter, you’ll always be talking about old news. Not great.

The first (and easiest) action we took was to:

Eliminate the full sentences

Of the 90 words on the slides, 33 related to non-essential words. What does ‘non-essential’ mean? Well words that, even if you only had ten minutes to read the presentation before you delivered it, you simply wouldn’t need to see on the slide

Now, without using the exact text (confidentiality and all that) the non-essential words looked something like this:

‘The ABC Association sees…’

‘It wants to ensure that appropriate …’

‘It believes that…’ ‘but is’

‘Its research has shown that…’

‘The ABC Association states that it is … ‘and that its…’’making lenders…’

So, from a slide of 90 words we now have 57. OK, I know it’s still far too much. But at least we can now have a font of 24. And 57 words is a lot, lot better than 90. Especially if you …

Animate the bullet points

The 90 word slide already had been presented as 4 bullet points. Although the clients knew about animation (and how to use it) they just hadn’t thought of using it (no, no idea what that’s about). So, a simple way to manage the problem of the audience reading faster than the presenter can speak was to animate the bullet points. It’s also just a bit more interesting

Two tips on animation:

  1. Always have the text appear from the left (it’s the way readers of English usually read text so feels more natural)
  2. Be consistent (nobody wants to see text arriving from different directions, at different speeds, in different styles – blinds, box, checkerboard etc etc. It’s just tedious)

Now, I hear a question:

Aren’t pictures better than text?

Oh yes. Every book I’ve read and every consultant I’ve talked to gives the message that pictures are much, much more effective than text. I couldn’t agree more. But … it just doesn’t work for everyone. The whole point of this client’s presentations was to share with their audience the latest legal updates and guidance from a financial regulator. Even if you could give a presentation on, for example, ‘The Markets in Financial Instruments Directive’ in picture form; would you want to? Would your audience want you to?

OK, back to the text problem. Now I’m nothing if not ambitious, so the next step was to guide the clients towards the idea of the much loved…

5 x 5 Rule

There’s a general consensus that the most effective slides have five lines only with a maximum of 5 words per line. Why five? The theory is that people remember 7 units of information, plus or minus 2. Five then is the average. But how to get from 57 words to 25? The strategy we agreed on was…


As the people at Microsoft say; ‘Presenter view is a great way for you to view your presentation with your speaker notes on one computer (your laptop, for example) while the audience views the notes-free presentation on a different monitor’.  I’m guessing you remember that the main reason the slides were text heavy was that the clients often didn’t have a lot of time to prepare to deliver information from a third party? So the solution of taking part of the text from the slide onto speaker notes seemed a good one. Now, using Presenter view effectively does take some practice. But it does mean you can take much of the text off the slide, leaving only the ‘bare bones’ – the meaningful text that, using your speaker notes, you can then expand on (it’s probably worth mentioning that the audience had the full written text to take away with them)

I can’t show you what we did (that pesky confidentiality again) but working together we were able to achieve the 5×5 rule in a way that everyone was happy (actually we reduced the slide text to 20 words; but I really mustn’t boast). The trick is to look for the key words or phrases that summarise the content

This meant we could also:

Get the font face and size right

The most recommended font face is Arial or Verdana in font size 30. Why? The experts say it’s a good read size and Sans serif easier to read than Serif (it’s all about the ‘decorative flourishes’ apparently!). My view, having painstakingly gone through each and every one of my presentations to adjust the font to Arial 30, is it just looks good

I hear another question:

If you are just sharing information, is a presentation necessary?

On the basis that I’ve described these presentations as being about transfer of information and I’ve said that the audience take away the information in written form, you might wonder why the client gives a presentation at all. Couldn’t they just email the information? Well no, because as part of the presentation the audience periodically discuss the information and explore ideas on implementation. Which leads me to another tip that the clients really liked (and, again, that I presumed everyone knew):

Use the ‘B’ or ‘W’ keys

When there’s a discussion it can be useful to make the screen go blank or white so that the audience aren’t distracted by the text on screen. You do this by tapping ‘b’ or ‘w’ on your keyboard (and tapping again when you want to bring the text back). Gosh, sometimes the easiest tricks can make a difference


There is so much more that could be said about how to use PowerPoint. Luckily, most of it has already been said (there are a lot of books and blogs out there). The focus of this blog has been to look at a couple of fairly simple ways to reduce a slide of 90 words to 20.

I’m sure there are other ways we could have approached this. What do you say?


If you would like to know how I can help you, your team or your business use research-based tools and techniques to improve your presentations just drop me a line at joan@10mmt.com

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