Thursday, June 20, 2013

the slideument

A common question has come up in several of my recent workshops: what should I do when the document I'm creating is meant to be used both as a written report and as part of a live presentation?

In an idea world, this situation would never arise. Rather, you would prepare two distinct deliverables:
  1. A written report, where you can get away with denser content and rely more heavily on things like written words and an appendix to make sure the necessary context and explanation are present for your audience.
  2. A presentation, where slides are much less dense, font is never smaller than 16-point, and the speaker is able to verbally provide the necessary information so it need not all be physically written down.
In reality, this rarely happens. Time and other constraints lead us to create something that is meant to be a sort of mesh of these two things: the slideument.* 
*I can't take credit for this mashup, but rather must give it to Nancy Duarte, who discusses the slideument in her book, slide:ology.

So the question remains: if slideuments are the reality, what should we do? In this post, we'll take a look at some of the challenges this presents as well as some strategies for overcoming them.

The crux of the challenge is: the report needs to be able to stand on its own without a presenter there to explain it. But if you put the dense slide that meets this first need in front of your audience, you lose them immediately because they turn their attention to trying to understand what you've put in front of them and stop listening to you. Or worse yet, they see that what you've put in front of them looks overwhelming, so they tune both it and you out and turn their attention to something else altogether. In either case, you've lost some of your audience and thus your ability to communicate effectively.

One solution I'll propose is to maintain the density of information (to ensure an audience who is consuming this info on their own has the details necessary to do so) and use animation in your presentation software to enable to presenter to focus on just one piece of the visual at a time, while simultaneously ensuring that's where the audience's attention will be focused as well. In this way, we are able to lead our live audience through the pieces and communicate effectively to those digesting the information later with the written report.

Let's look at an example. Imagine that I want to show an overview of my organization's social media followers (assume this is context that sets up the interesting story that we aim to tell in the rest of the presentation/report). Imagine also that I've been given the constraint of a single slide to do this. My slide might look something like this:

While this level of detail might be fine to have on a single page of a report that someone looks at on their computer screen or on a printed page, it can be overwhelming when you put it up on the big screen. There's a lot to take in, so if you show it all at once, some in your audience may tune out entirely, while others will busy themselves reading through what they are looking at (and unfortunately, when they do this it means they've stopped listening to you).

One way we can prevent this is by only showing a single element of the page at a time. Tactically, you can do this either by having elements of the page appear and disappear or covering up elements on the page with white (either solid or semi-transparent) boxes and using animation in your presentation software to only show one item at a time. So perhaps you flash up the full slide as you tell your audience you are going to talk them through what they are looking at, piece by piece. First, focus on the membership trend over time:

When your audience can only see one element on the page, their attention will be on it and on you. After you've talked through the membership trend, you could shift to the next element: who the members are.

At this point, you could even layer on some preattentive attributes, like color, to draw your audience to a specific part of the element and talk about what's interesting there.

(Yes, the font is tiny; if you're there to explain why the blue part is interesting, perhaps the supporting text at the very bottom is best left as part of the report version and never presented). Then you could step through the remaining elements in the same manner, one by one, explaining and pausing to point out the interesting aspects of each.

Sure, it would be better if you could give each of these elements their own slide. But in the scenario where that isn't possible, perhaps you'll find these tricks helpful.

You can download the PowerPoint here. I've included a version where the graphs appear/disappear directly, as well as one that leverages transparent boxes to direct the audience's focus to a single element at a time.


  1. Hi, are you sure the term "slideument" originated from Nancy Duarte? Because I've also read it before from Garr Reynolds' book: Presentation Zen.

    1. Hi Malcolm,

      You are absolutely right - I just pulled Presentation Zen off my bookshelf and Garr Reynolds does discuss the Slideument as well. It looks like this book and Slide:ology were both published in 2008, so I'm not sure who said it first!

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Once again...simple, yet INGENIOUS suggestions!!!! Can't WAIT for your workshop in SF!

  3. Once again...simple, yet ingenious, suggestions! Can't WAIT for the SF brain will be exploding!

  4. [Posting on behalf of Dean Laffan, of]

    A good article on a very common issue that regularly ruins corporate presentations, particularly financial based presentations such as Full Year and Half Year Results presentations.

    Of course there is only so much you can do by better design and layout, if you are stuck with 'having' to include all the data on the slide that you present. (Clean up)

    Our first option is to try and convince the clients to take an alternative approach, which is to better utilise the Speaker Notes feature of Powerpoint to do the heavy lifting of supporting data. This frees you up to design and layout the slides as slides (Duarte-esque for lack of a better description) and format the supporting data into the Notes page only. You present the on-screen version (duh ;-) and the distributed version you Print/PDF as Slides with Notes.

    Yes, it's still a little more work, but not as much time or complexity as two separate PPT files.

    I would love to write a blog post on the subject with illustrated examples, but Nolan Haims from Edelman has already beat me to the punch and done it better than I ever could. See link below;