If you spent a lot of time talking to people in business about presentations, you’ll quickly learn that many of them are frustrated. CEOs, forced to sit through one long, convoluted recommendation after another, are struggling. Managers receive little positive feedback; after spending hours on a senior management update, they walk away with the problem unresolved.
One common solution managers have chosen is to limit the length of the talk. One executive recently told me: “We only let people present seven slides.” Another manager was very encouraged because the average length of a presentation at his company had gone down. He was debating strict limits, too.
Unfortunately, page limits will not lead to stronger presentations and better decisions. If anything, capping the number of pages can have the opposite effect– less effective presentations and poorer business decisions.
The first problem with a strict page limit is that it will almost always lead to cluttered pages. People will work very hard to fit more information on to each page. They will take the material that once took up four pages and simply compress it to half the length.
The reality is that business situations are complicated. A good recommendation needs to factor in competitive dynamics, financial calculations, alternative strategies and risks. The rise of big data has opened up a vast array of possible analyses, many of which add real value.
But a fixed number of pages can reduce the amount of relevant and important material. And it can force presenters to leave out information or cram it onto fewer available pages. Both options are bad.
To reduce clutter, and allow presenters to make a more concise presentation, it is best to spread out the analyses onto more, not fewer, pages.
No Time to Tell a Story
People like stories. This is how they have communicated for centuries. A list of facts is impossible to remember. An interesting story will stick with us.
A good presentation tells a story. The presenter lays out a situation, provides relevant information and then considers alternative paths. All of this leads naturally to a conclusion. It seems simple and logical.
The problem with a strict page limit is that it leaves little time to tell a story. With only five or seven pages, the opportunity to walk through a situation step by step vanishes. All you can do is present a lot of information and then struggle to connect the points.
If you want people to communicate clearly, let them tell a story. Encourage them to put a headline on every page highlighting the key point. See that they connect one page to the next. For this to happen, however, people need space and time.
Hard to Present
When it comes to a presentation, you want people to succeed. You want the story to be clear and the recommendation to be crisp. Nobody benefits when a speaker stumbles through a presentation. The experience leaves the speaker rattled and demoralized. And senior executives become bored, frustrated and worried about the quality of their team.
It is easy to present some material. When there is a story, people will naturally tell it. When pages are simple, people can explain them. Some presentations are written in such a tight, logical fashion that virtually anyone could stand up and present them. The talk seems smart and strategic.
But other material is much more difficult to present. The greatest challenge of all is when pages are dense w and the presentation lacks a story. In this scenario, speakers have a daunting task; they have to tell a story when there is no story to tell.
Limiting a talk to five or six pages creates documents that are exceptionally challenging to deliver. A better approach is to give presenters the space and time to spell out the business problem and a recommendation. In other words, let them tell a story.
Frustrated CEOs love setting page limits on presentations. The problem is that this won’t lead to improved presentations and better decisions. If you want to receive better presentations, encourage your people to tell a story. Insist that each presentation have a clear statement of purpose, an agenda and an executive decision. Require headlines and simple pages. Be strict on the time, just don’t cap the length.