A Satirical Look at Presentations and Why They Bore Us to Death
We’ve all heard the adage, “less is more.” What you might not know is that the person who made that phrase famous, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (b.1886), was referring to architectural design, not presentations. I mean, come on, could someone with a name that long really make a credible argument for using fewer words? And, for the record, he was born “Maria Ludwig Michael Mies” and later changed his name to “Ludwig Mies van der Rohe,” adding another word along the way. Less is more, indeed. (FYI, the first recognized use of the "less is more" phrase appears in Robert Browning’s poem, “Andrea del Sarto” in 1855 (“Well, less is more, Lucrezia”), a dramatic dialogue that, using quite a large number of words (2221, to be exact) explores the conflict between creating art to make a living or creating art for its own sake. That debate is still ongoing among academics today, and I can tell you from experience they don’t follow a “less is more” approach in the process).
Mies, as his friend called him (they weren’t putting up with that long name at all), became famous for his minimalist approach to architecture, as demonstrated by the photograph of the “Farnsworth House” included here.
He designed a number of famous buildings, including some in New York and Chicago. Mies died in 1969, however, and therefore never experienced the 1980s, which challenged his famous aphorism with its own: “more is more.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the rise of Microsoft PowerPoint began in 1987. In this “age of excess,” presenters and teachers already had the means by which they could launch obscene volumes of material at audience members using traditional overhead machines. With the advent of desktop computers and this accompanying software, however, presenters could now streamline the amount and variety of data they would include in their talks. In short, PowerPoint was for 80s presenters what Aqua Net was for 80s hair bands—you just couldn’t use too much of it. When it comes to boring people to death with presentations, the skilled practitioner can look to the 80s for inspiration: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.
To that end, the easiest way to fill up a slide with information is with text. Lots and lots of text. And in paragraph form please. The key here is to make verbosity your goal when it comes to the text you put on each slide. What is verbosity, you ask? Well, the Oxford English Dictionary, which was begun in 1857, not in Oxford, but in London, and was not originally called the Oxford English Dictionary but rather A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, and which was created by the London Philological Society, the oldest learned society in Great Britain, defines verbosity as "the quality of using more words than needed; wordiness."
See what I did there? I could have just said “verbosity=wordiness,” but where’s the fun in that? Instead of focusing on the minimal number of words to convey my thoughts, I simply wrote what first came to mind, allowing my thoughts to wander, as they often do.
Putting a ton of text on a slide is by far one of the most powerful weapons we have in our arsenal. I provide a visual example here. Notice how I’ve made this note and the entire previous paragraph fit on the same slide.
Whoever came up with the saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” had clearly never been beaten over the head with a PowerPoint presentation. Not only can words hurt people in general, but in presentations even the most innocuous of words—in high enough volume—can cause acute brain trauma in audience members. As with the other strategies we are discussing, this one has some dos and don’ts. When it comes to deciding what to say and what text needs to go on any given slide in order to maximize audience boredom, try to adhere to the following:
Don’t think too carefully about your word choices. Go with the first thing that comes to mind. The more you think about your word choice, the more likely it is that you’ll end up using less words, and we can’t have that.
Don’t get caught obsessing about your grammar or sentence structure. If the text on the slides is problematic for some reason, you’ll catch it in your presentation and can correct it then. Besides, grammar mistakes on your slides just make you look more human.
Don’t pay attention to font style. Go with the default setting (Times New Roman, anyone?) There are all kinds of theories on which font you should use in any given context, but you need not worry about that. In fact, don’t even google that topic. Just go with the default.
Don’t worry about font size, either. Again, just go with the default (size 12 is plenty big). If people have trouble reading your slides from a distance, then they can move closer to the front, can’t they?
Don’t worry about text or background color coordination (see above example). As long as you can read it fine on your laptop, all is well.
Put as much text on each slide as you can. In fact, use that “create a text box” feature and make the whole slide a text box.
Put up on the slide—verbatim—the exact words you plan to speak while giving the presentation (more on this in a later post).
If you insist on including images or graphs, you might as well include as many as you can on each slide, along with the text. As with font size, don’t worry about how readable these are at a distance; people can move closer or take a picture and zoom in.
Fill the entire slide up with text or images. No need to waste any space or break up a topic or idea up into more than one slide.
If something can be presented simply in a few words, make it complicated. That will show people how smart you are.
These "dos and don’ts" represent just a few ways you can live by the “more is more” motto. I’m sure, with even more thoughtfulness, you can come up with other ways of ensuring that the design of your slides works to alienate and bore your audiences. With enough time, you might discover how slides, on their own, can lead to “Death by Presentation,” no matter what else the presenter does. Properly designed, a slide deck—where verbosity and unnecessary images and graphs rule—can’t be overcome by even the most energetic of presenters.
As a child of the 80s, one of my favorite hair metal bands was Cinderella. Though they came on the scene a bit late (1986), they wasted no time in going all in with the “more is more” attitude. They could easily have adopted the same excessive approach of other glam rock/hair metal bands around them, but they were not satisfied with just bench marking their careers. No, this band wanted to turn up excess to 11, and they did just that.
With the launch of their debut album, Night Songs, and their resulting explosion of teenage fans all over the globe, they single-handedly doubled Aqua Net’s stock overnight. Such was the commitment of this band to embracing the superfluous. So, as you continue to work on excess in slide preparation, you might find yourself tempted to “keep it simple” or to buy into Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s slogan of “less is more.” Don’t give in. In those moments, just pause, take a breath, and ask, “What would Cinderella do?" I think we know.
Next time, we’ll look at how your personal treatment of “more is more” slides can work to increase their function in putting your audiences to sleep. Until then, I leave you with a fond memory that illustrates—with remarkable excess—how too much is never too much: Cinderella’s first big 80s hit, “Nobody’s Fool.” 71 million YouTube viewers obviously get it, too.
(On a personal note, a 16-year-old version of me *might* have tried to execute the over-the-shoulder guitar sling (seen at 3:20 in the video) but only succeeded in destroying the living room ceiling fan and damaging an otherwise beautiful bass guitar).