Insight • October 6, 2020

Please, Don’t Ever Read Your Slides!

By Karen Foster

In your career, you’ve probably delivered or sat through dozens, maybe even hundreds, of presentations; the vast majority of which have probably faded into the deepest recesses of your memory.

But did they all?

Chances are a few of them have stuck with you.  Take a minute to reflect and identify those that were truly memorable.

Have you got a few? 

Most likely, the ones that stuck with you have done so for a reason: they were either really great…or really bad.

Recently, I sat through a presentation that, unfortunately, will stick in my memory for being not so great.  Why? Well, because throughout the 45-minutes the presenter often resorted to one of the worst things a presenter can do: read content on the slide out loud, word-for-word to the audience. 

As someone who has presented in front of audiences from 5 to 500, I understand why a presenter might do this.  The pressure of an audience or one’s undying passion for the content or a lack of preparation can lead us all, including myself, to use this tactic.  In addition, presenters rationalize that reading the text on a slide will help audiences, “really get it,” and, “Be excited!” Unfortunately, it is just the opposite. There are, in fact, several valid reasons why reading content from slides is really bad. Really bad. And, in some cases, those reasons are backed by scientific research.

Let’s take a look.

It’s boring.

For one thing, it bores our audiences.  Why? Well here is the science behind it.

When you project a slide up on a screen, it will, in most cases, have text written on it in the form of key messages or bullet points.  Research has shown that audience members read those messages on their own, without prompting.  If it’s in their first language, they actually can’t help but to read it.1  It’s automatic.  And, they read it in a matter of seconds.

The average reading speed of adults in their first language is about 200 words per minute.2,3

Top executives and those who love to read can double or exceed that to 400-500 words per minute.4

Let’s assume a slide has about 40 words on it in your audience’s first language5 (33 is the recommended maximum number of words per slide, however, most go far beyond that).  You just advanced from the prior slide and took, let’s say, 10 seconds to set-up the current slide.  By the time you get around to the reading the text out loud on the current slide, audience members are in one of two possible situations. 

In one situation, the fastest reading audience members finished reading your slide over 5 seconds ago! And in their minds, they are already thinking, “so what?”.  If you resort to reading the same material to them, they droop and wilt from boredom, silently screaming in their heads, “I already know this!  Tell me something new!”

It can harm understanding and retention.

In the second case, other audience members are still silently reading the slide’s content in their heads at the same time you start reading the content on the slide out loud. This creates an even worse situation than boredom – confusion. 

Why? Well imagine listening to your favorite song using earbuds. However, in the right earbud, the song is broadcast at ½ speed and on a 5 second delay versus the left. Painful, right? It’s the same in the second case and again, it comes down to words per minute. 

Presenters are generally coached to speak at about 100 words per minute.6 Average audience members are reading at 200 words per minute.  So, the average audience member is simultaneously receiving the same information in two different ways at two different speeds; visually by reading at 200 words per minute and auditorily by listening to you at 100 words per minute.

The brain struggles at effectively processing information in this way7.  So, when the presenter reads out loud content on the slide, he or she is not reinforcing what’s on the slide, they’re actually interfering with it. From the audience member’s standpoint, it all just becomes noise.  Overall understanding and retention are reduced.

It’s disrespectful.

This may sound a little harsh, but parroting slide content out loud to an audience is a bit disrespectful.  In a way, it communicates to the audience members that they cannot read the content for themselves. 

No presenter wants to bore their audience while disrespecting them, making the information harder to comprehend and reducing their own credibility! Whew! That’s not exactly a recipe for success.

Don’t worry, there’s hope!

So, I’d like to offer some useful tips that have worked for me.  Anyone who delivers presentations can use these tips to be more effective and have more engaged audiences.

  1. Don’t be afraid of a little silence. When you put a slide on the screen, it’s OK to be silent for a few moments so the audience can read it (and they will).  Give them a little time to read and absorb the key messages on the slide before you start talking.
  2. When you speak, supplement what’s on the slides. When you do start talking, say things that expand upon the information on the slides.  The audience has already read the key messages, so now you can offer examples to illustrate key points, tell an anecdote to drive home a particular message, offer additional details regarding a specific bullet point.  The words you say should explain, elaborate, illustrate, or otherwise reinforce what you’ve captured on the slide.
  3. OK, sometimes you can read what’s on a slide. Occasionally, it makes sense to read out loud exactly what’s on a slide.  For example, if you really want to emphasize a specific point, you can give the audience time to read it on their own…and then read it out loud slowly.  This avoids the “noise” issue mentioned above while effectively emphasizing the point.  In other cases, you may have to read certain points out loud verbatim due to regulatory requirements.  This can be the case in some compliance-oriented training sessions.  In those cases, remember to give the audience a moment to read it first, and then you can read it aloud for emphasis.

You may also have tips or suggestions regarding this topic.  If so, I’d love to see them in the comments.  Until next time, here’s to delivering only positively memorable presentations.

Notes:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2805254/#R43
  2. https://iovs.arvojournals.org/article.aspx?articleid=2166061
  3. https://psyarxiv.com/xynwg/
  4. https://www.forbes.com/sites/brettnelson/2012/06/04/do-you-read-fast-enough-to-be-successful/#7cc4093f462e
  5. https://www.virtualsalt.com/powerpoint.htm#:~:text=The%20rule%20of%204%20by,bunch%20of%20bookworms%20(screenworms%3F)
  6. https://virtualspeech.com/blog/average-speaking-rate-words-per-minute
  7. Mayer, Richard E. “Cognitive theory of multimedia learning.” The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning (2005): 600-601.