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 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
from 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, one’s undying passion
for the content or a lack of preparation can lead us all to use this tactic―myself
included. 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. In fact, there
are several valid reasons why reading content from slides is really, really bad.
And in some cases, those reasons are backed by scientific research.
Let’s take a look.
For one thing, it bores our audiences. Why?
Here is the science behind it.
In most cases, when you project a slide on
a screen, it will 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 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
harm understanding and retention.
In one situation, the fastest reading audience
members finished reading your slide over five 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!”
In the second case, other audience members are
still silently reading the slide 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 five second delay versus the left. Painful,
right? It’s the same in the second case and again, it comes down to words per
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 members’ standpoint, it all just becomes noise. Overall understanding and retention are
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.
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Mayer, Richard E.
“Cognitive theory of multimedia learning.” The Cambridge
handbook of multimedia learning (2005): 600-601.