Why Less Is More

A full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal sells for well over $100,000.  If you were spending that kind of money, would you devote the vast majority of that real estate to empty space?

Why do you suppose that so many advertising agencies create ads that do just that: small images of the product surrounded by open fields of blank paper?  Do they enjoy wasting their clients’ money? Is there a good reason to devote so much of an ad to “white space?” Well, the answer is that in many cases, when trying to make a strong impression, less is often more. Much more.  In other words, the less ink spent on messages that might divert attention from the main one, the more impact the main message has.

When designing your slides (or for that matter your whole presentation), keep in mind that not only are audience’s attention spans short, their retention is painfully low, too. When LearnSys, a business seminar company out of Shawnee Mission, Kansas, did a six-month long survey of thousands of attendees to their one-day programs, they discovered that their typical adult participant retained only 10 percent of what she had learned less than a week before!  Your mission, then, is to determine not only if that piece of information you feel you simply must include in your slide is relevant, but also whether it will have staying power in the mind of your listener. Is it “need-to-know”, or only “nice-to-know”?  Nice-to-know info makes for good talking matter to back up your main point, but only need-to-know material should ever appear on the screen. 

This rule is essential for graphs or charts. We often see pie charts come across our review desk with over a dozen slices, many so small they need to be annotated with lines and arrows far from the graph itself. 

Do you really think anyone will remember all 13 competing products in your market and their percentage share? Might be good information for a handout, but in a presentation few people can absorb more than six elements in any graph. You make your point much more effectively when you limit your displayed data to the stuff the audience is likely to remember, rather than when you try to tell them everything:

And for those of you who say, “My VP of Marketing doesn’t let us group the smaller slices together as ‘other,’” no problem!  Start with a slide that shows the 13-slice graph. Duplicate the slide, and then change the data to show the top 5 elements with all the little guys grouped as Other. Use the simple slide as your main slide, and move the full-data one to the end of your deck.Then put a hyperlink on your simple slide to the unretainable one, and apply a nice fade transition.

(To apply the hyperlink, first select the graph object. Right-click and select “Action Settings” from the pop-up menu. On the “Mouse click” tab, select “Hyperlink to”, and then scroll down and select “Slide…,” indicating the number of the slide you want to link to. You’ll need another hyperlink on the “reference” slide to get back; we suggest attaching it to an object in your Slide Master such as your logo and choosing “Last slide viewed.” This way any other reference slides you include in your deck will always return to the slide from which they lauched.)

Now, when the VP of marketing complains about your trying to make your presentation comprehendible, you simply click on the hyperlink and Voila! — your graph morphs into all the information your VP wants to see (even if no one else does). With this technique, if the VP is not in the audience, nobody has to be bored or overwhelmed by data they won’t remember anyway. And if he is, by publicly showing him that you actually do know the whole story and were just showing your concern for the audience by not overstaying your welcome, he probably won’t risk the audience’s ire by asking again.

By restricting the quality of “screen-ink”, as Dr. Edward Tufte likes to call it, to only the best, you don’t dilute the images burned into your listener’s retina. Less information becomes more retention of the stuff you really want them to know.