Avoid Information Overload

The best presentations are pretty sparse. They do not fill every bit of white space with data, words, cute clip art, frilly backgrounds, and eye-catching multi-media elements. There is a time and place for all these elements, but most presentations don’t need them. If you are producing a documentary film of an important construction project, you don’t need special effects, action scenes, and nudity to tell the story. Similarly, if you are presenting your team’s budgetary status, you don’t need clip art, PowerPoint animations, and distracting background graphics.

Although there are occasionally good reasons for very detailed and polished presentations, too often people feel compelled to be complete and precise in every presentation on every topic. These tendencies simply lead to turd polishing and unsatisfactory communications. The self-defining jargon I just used is a memorable term for adding lots of details and frills in an attempt to make relatively weak or low quality messages look better. Turd polishing, practiced both in writing and speaking, is usually obvious to an audience and is somewhat insulting. Most audiences are too polite to challenge you when they see such material, but they will turn on their BS filters and start interpreting everything you say with more skepticism.

Here are a few ideas for avoiding information overload.

  1. Use illustrations and pictures
  2. Use mathematics
  3. Make things memorable
  4. Avoid false precision
  5. Have empathy for the audience.

Each of these topics will be covered in more detail in future posts.

I want to close this post with a story from Japan that relates to the last point: have empathy for the audience. I am in Japan as I write this and spent the day presenting to several different audiences. After I presented a short case study from Nationwide bank, my colleague informed me that the PowerPoint slide had a great translation error. The original slide stated something like: Nationwide Bank has demonstrated a 15% improvement. The translated slide said: All across the United States, banks have demonstrated a 15% improvement.

Translating into a foreign language is a great clarity filter, and sometimes a great humor generator. This is another good reason to use illustrations, mathematics and meaningful, memorable words. They translate clearly. Nothing improves your presentation skills as much as presenting to an audience that doesn’t speak your language. The process of translation, the interactions with translators and the changes in presentation style will improve your attention to having empathy for the audience.


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