The Shape of Your Presentation

What shape is your presentation? Flat? Round? Spiky? It’s an unusual question, but a very effective one for diagnosing the biggest problem affecting most presentations.

PowerPoint often guides us down a bad path from the very start. The built-in templates conform us to a very rigid structure — titles and bullet points on every slide. Essentially, they encourage us to create a series of isolated lists, which is an ineffective way to structure your presentation.

Hills and Heart Rates

Before PowerPoint existed, people thought of presentations as speeches, and we tend to approach speech writing differently from presentation design.

There aren't any visuals to rely on in a speech, so it’s up to our words to make the content interesting. For this reason, speechwriters focus on the narrative, or the overall structure of the speech.

Speeches are round, like hills. They’re usually in the story-plot structure, which consists of an introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. If we abstractly charted a speech, it would look something like this.

Apollo Speech Shape A.png

Slide presentations look very different. The standard presentation format (template) encourages us to create an isolated series of lists (titles & bullets), and so we end up presenting our material as just that.

It goes something like this: After our title and intro slides, we toss up a slide with a single topic (e.g. “Competitive Landscape”). We say everything we can about the topic, then move on to the next slide with a new topic (e.g. “Market Size”), where we say everything we can about that. This repeats for about ten to twenty minutes until we come to a slide titled, “Conclusion”, where we abruptly stop talking and ask for questions.

Apollo Speech Shape B.png

Slide presentations are spiky, like the beeping heart-rate monitors you see in hospitals (EKGs). That spiky shape is the reason so many presentations are so boring to sit through.

Wired to remember

Humans love stories, and we're all natural storytellers. Every time we chat with friends we’re telling each other stories, and we're not usually reciting a series of isolated lists to one another.

Our minds are wired to take in and remember round information much better than spiky information. This is why you can remember the details of a famous speech or the plot of a good movie, much easier than you can remember the items on your last grocery list. Your brain processes round information better because round information is saturated with meaning, which is the key requirement for memory formation.

So when you’re working on your next presentation, remember to consider its shape. Bullet points aren’t the problem — the way we've grown accustomed to using them is.

Keep it round, avoid the spikes.