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The 10/20/30 Rule of Presentations

How many of you have been in a presentation this month that has included a slide so packed with information, that you either tuned it out entirely, or weren’t able to finish reading it before the page was flipped? I’m referencing, of course, the all-too-common slide with 100+ words, some bullets, footnotes and sources, all set to 10 pt fonts. They are incredibly common because as presenters we want to convey authority on the subject, and show that we have access to a ton of information about whatever we are talking about. Unfortunately for the presenter in question here, more often than not, the audience isn’t listening or, if they are, they won’t remember a single thing shown on the slide five minutes later.
As it turns out our brains, however advanced we are above our animal cohorts, can only handle so much information before we start to tune out, doze off, or reach for our smartphones. Fortunately for us, science does know the limits of our brains, so we can make adjustments to our PowerPoints to maximize our persuasive power, and limit the number of emails being sent while we are talking.

Here is what we know: the average powerpoint slide has about 40 words on it. If there are words on a slide, and the slide is being shown to an audience, that audience will try to read all words on the slide. It’s what we college educated chair sitters do. However, the average reading speed for words on a screen is around 100 words a minute, which means that if you have 40 words on a slide it will take the audience about 24 seconds to make their way through the copy – all while the presenter is talking. Humans can read much faster than they can talk, so no matter how quickly the presenter is talking, there will be 24 seconds of two things happening at once, at two different speeds, followed by a period of waiting while the speaker catches up to the audience. Consider that all lost time and very poor persuasion.
Add to that the fact that human being’s attention span is limited to about 10 minutes of passive concentration. If the presentation is scheduled to run for 45 minutes or an hour, and if there is nothing to engage the audience directly – a story, an applause line, a joke – then their smartphone starts to look pretty attractive around minute 9.
Guy Kawasaki, a onetime evangelist for Apple, an investor, and the author of a number of books on presenting, has a very quick guide to making presentations more memorable, more focussed, and therefore more effective. It’s something he calls the 10/20/30 Rule. And it is an excellent baseline for creating your presentations going forward.
It goes like this: 10 pages, 20 minutes, and no copy in anything smaller than 30 point type.
The secret to effective presentations is to maximize the persuasive effect on your audience, and minimize the boredom and dread. The best techniques in the industry, as displayed by icons like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos or Marisa Mayer, depend not simply on their cult of personality (and professional power) but in their solid understanding of the way in which human brains take in and process information, and the brains ability to recall that information later on. The common thread to all of their presentations: fewer slides, fewer words, and carefully chosen images.
It might seem impossible to reduce your decks down to the bare minimum, but there is also science behind the 10 page limit. Ten pages is optimal because normal people can’t retain more than 10 concepts in a single sitting. As you add more concepts, the initial concepts you presented in the early pages, drops out of memory. Without a 10 page limit, the other 30 ideas in your presentation are lost to the ether. It’s much better to stick to the best and the brightest ideas, and leave the rest for independent reading as a leave-behind.
Most often you’ll have been given an hour, but human beings are social animals and clients are not hiring an agency for their PowerPoint skills. They are hiring human beings who are experts in a field who are also people that they want to work with. Don’t diminish yourself by putting all the attention on the deck. You’re the consultant, consult – live. Introduce what you want to talk about in 20 minutes. Give the audience food for thought. Pose a couple questions. And then open up the conversation to listen to what they really want to say.
A 30 point font is fairly big, it’s true. But if you strive to get there, you’ll realize that you will have to cut away a lot of copy that simply isn’t all that compelling. Reduce the slide down to the most important idea, and make that idea shine. Steve Jobs is very famous for presenting slides with a single word, or a single phrase, and then speaking about the idea verbally. This method gets the idea into the audience’s head quickly, and then turns the attention back to the presenter. There are two benefits to this. One is quick, easy, and memorable communication of the central idea, and two, continued focus on the presenter.
Kawasaki allows for some leeway here by adding, if 30 points seems too dogmatic, find out the age of the oldest person in the audience and divide by two. That’s the optimal font size for the audience.
It will be a lot of work initially, to reduce your ideas down to the most important component pieces, but if you make the effort, the persuasive power of your presentation should rise dramatically. And you’ll become more memorable to your clients.

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Saren Sakurai

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