Presenters use substantially more text on their PowerPoint slides than is advised. Anxious presenters probably use PowerPoint slides, not as support for the audience, but as speaking notes for themselves. They should learn to use pictures instead.

PowerPoint presentations are often criticized for the slide design: Too much text and too many bullet points hinder rather than help the audience’s ability to understand the presenter’s central message.

Based on our experience as presentation trainers, we feel that speaking anxiety might play a crucial role in the tendency to use too many words on slides. Presenters who fear they will be lost for words, forget a topic, or present the topics in the wrong order know that PowerPoint slides containing the wording and structure of their speech could be helpful.

Combine pictures with spoken words

Texts on PowerPoint slides is problematic though. It might cause presenters to turn toward the projection to read the words themselves and break eye contact with the audience, which is an important component of a good presentation. Furthermore the use of words on a slide hinder the information processing of the audience, whereas pictures combined with spoken words improve it. While helpful for the presenter, the heavy use of text on slides might directly and indirectly impair the quality of the presentation.

Texts on PowerPoint slides prompts the presenter to read the text out loud.

In our study among social scientists we found a mean of 55 words per slide. Compared with the different proposed maximum numbers in instruction books, this average exceeds the highest proposed maximum number of 36 by 50%.

We also found that presenters with higher speaking anxiety spent more time rehearsing and that the more time presenters spent rehearsing the presentation, the more words they use on the slides. We assume that anxious presenters use the PowerPoint slides as speaking notes while rehearsing, using the words as prompts, and that they keep the words on their slides as speaking notes during their presentations.

Three-step method for teaching how to present with PowerPoint

We advocate a three-step method for teaching how to present with PowerPoint.

  1. Rhetorical skills should be taught while presenting without the use of the program. To help presenters overcome their speaking anxiety, instructors can provide them with a series of small exercises, giving positive feedback and emphasizing success. The importance of rehearsing should be stressed, not only for the quality of the presentation but also to diminish speaking anxiety.
  2. Presenters should be taught how audiences process information and how to use this knowledge in designing and presenting a slide deck.
  3. Special attention can be given to finding appropriate pictures to support the story. The pictures can serve as a memory aid as well and can be seen from the laptop screen or a paper speaking note.

Reference: Hertz, B., Kerkhof,P. and van Woerkum, C. (2016) PowerPoint Slides as Speaking Notes: The Influence of Speaking Anxiety on the Use of Text on Slides Business and Professional Communication Quarterly, Vol. 79(3) 348– 359. (Download this article in PDF)