Is a picture worth a thousand words? It is when you’re trying to describe drought conditions in the American southwest. This week, newspapers and websites posted photos of the rapidly evaporating Colorado River, a system that supplies water to forty million people.
In one dramatic photo, bathtub-like rings clearly show where the water level used to be and how much lower it is today. Another photo shows an exposed sunken boat on a dry lake bed. The New York Times article that accompanies the images is just over 900 words. It answers questions like how low the reservoir levels are (28 percent of capacity) and what new restrictions are being placed on farmers and homeowners.
But if you don’t read the article and all you see are the pictures, you get the idea. The crisis is bad. So, yes, a photo can say 1,000 words.
If photos speak volumes, why aren’t you using more of them in your PowerPoint presentations? I find that most speakers understand that slides with too many words and too few pictures are boring and hard to read, but they don’t know how to fix it.
Well, there’s a simple solution. I call it the 10-40 Rule: the first ten slides of your presentation should contain no more than forty words.
The 10-40 Rule for Building Presentations
The average PowerPoint slide has 40 words. That’s the average, but many slides contain even more text. I’ve recently evaluated PowerPoint decks for executives and CEOs that are shockingly dense–some have 100 words or more. Those aren’t slides. They are ‘slideuments,’ documents masquerading as slides.
When I wrote The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs, I analyzed the Apple founder’s most famous keynotes–still considered among the best business presentations of our time. I discovered that all his presentations started with many photos and just a little text. In fact, the first ten slides usually contained no more than 40 words.
Ten slides–forty words.
At first, following the 10-40 rule will be more of an exercise to get you accustomed to using more images than text. But once you see how effective it is and how much your audience likes it, you might be inspired to keep it up for the rest of the presentation.
Follow the Rule for Better Storytelling
The rule acts as a forcing mechanism–it forces you to be more creative. Instead of writing headlines and bullet points, it forces you to be a storyteller.
Since our brains are wired for stories, opening with personal stories, anecdotes, or case studies will immediately engage your listeners. When you’re telling a story, there’s no need to have too many words on a slide. Instead, find pictures to complement the story.
When I taught executive education classes at Harvard this summer, many students were professional builders and property developers creating pitch decks to attract investors and partners. I recommended that they highlight any personal connections they might have to the projects.
One developer threw out his existing text-heavy pitch deck and started by discussing his family’s history in the neighborhood he wanted to redevelop. He showed photos of himself growing up in the very same place that, today, is in dire need of restoration. The photos and story reflected his commitment to honoring the region’s history. When he returned to Texas, he used his newfound storytelling skills to land a massive (and lucrative) contract. He said he’ll never go back to the “old way” of pitching again.
The “old way” of creating PowerPoint is a holdover from the pre-Instagram days. Today your audience prefers photos and videos. Every minute of every day, 66,000 photos are shared on Instagram, and 167 million videos are seen on TikTok. Simply put, we’re not reading bullet points.
It’s hard to stand out from the crowd. Rise above your competitors and get noticed by doing things differently, especially when you give a pitch or deliver a presentation. Follow the 10-40 rule in your next presentation to leave a memorable and positive impression.
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