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Presentations: Less Is More

Lately clients have been asking about how to help people improve their PowerPoint presentations. In a tidy package, here is my best advice for presentations: 

Less is more.

  • Less data–just a few powerful pieces–is more compelling than heaps of numbers.
  • Ten slides are more memorable than fifty.
  • One clear idea moves an audience more than three, four, or five ideas, especially muddy ones.
  • One relevant story sticks longer than a hundred statistics.
  • Four words on a slide communicate more than forty. 
  • A 10-minute presentation grabs an audience more than a 60-minute one. 
  • An hour spent understanding the audience pays off more than 24 hours of fearing them.
  • One precise call to action inspires an audience more than a dozen suggestions.
  • An ounce of courage is worth more than a pound of blather.

Yes, for presentations, less is more. But what if you have more to say–not less?

The place for the more–more data, more analysis, more recommendations–is the accompanying report or paper. You can use it as a resource when answering audience questions. And the audience can take it away to learn more. 

Do you believe less is more when it comes to great presentations? What is your best advice?

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

8 comments on “Presentations: Less Is More”

  • Hi, Lynn. (Since Portuguese is my native language, it always bugged me the “Hi John Doe,” greeting people in my Company use, but after your post on email greetings I can use a comma with no guilt, thanks! Now, back to the main point…)
    “Presentations: less is more”, what a great topic. My Company is almost exclusively formed by engineers and — boy! — these fellas like to clog up the communication channel with more information than needed!
    Thank you for the “accompanying report” suggestion, this should be a rule-of-thumb in presentations.
    Keep up the good work, I receive your posts via RSS and I cannot help but stopping what I am doing to learn a bit more on how to improve my English.

    Kind regards,


  • Yes! Less is more when it comes to PowerPoint presentations.

    Your suggestion that “the place for more…is the accompanying report or paper” is a revelation. In my experience with both presenting and being presented to, the PowerPoint presentation too often IS the report. I think that’s why we so commonly see slide after slide with bullet point after bullet point of lengthy text, which the presenter simply reads aloud to the audience. The presenter may have compiled good information, but, like you said, the details belong in a written document.

    The PowerPoint presentation should serve as a highlight reel that enhances the content of a well-written document. My rule of thumb going forward: WRITE FIRST. And if my document cannot be enhanced with PowerPoint, I’ll just share the document with the appropriate audience and save everyone the tedium of a pointless presentation.

    I’m so pleased that you brought this up, Lynn. Your thoughts on PowerPoint were just the nudge I needed to shift my perspective.

  • Oh bless you, Lynn, for another compelling blog post. My pet peeves are people using far too many sound effects and/or animations in a presentation. One starts to concentrate more on that than what is being presented. Another thing is to please avoid standing there and reading the slides to your audience. Nine times out of ten, the audience can read for themselves. Really. Just….argh!

  • Wow! I believe I have struck a nerve. Thank you, Rafael, JJB, and Khat, for your strong positive reactions.

    JJB, I like your idea that the PP presentation is a reel that enhances (or highlights) the content of a well-written document. Well said!

    Let’s all encourge others to write the report first and then create a presentation that focuses on the essential message.

  • Thanks for sharing, Clare. I love it too. And I appreciate Kawasaki’s example of selling one’s ideas in a high-stakes situation. If that requires only 10 slides, what could require more?

  • I agree. 4 x 4 is the rule I try to follow: four lines per point, and four points per slide.
    With less on the slides, the audience will find time to look at the speaker, and her expression and emotion.

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