Keep it simple…

“Simplicity,” said Leonardo da Vinci, “is the ultimate sophistication.” This is extremely important for your presentations. The more you can keep them simple, the better you will communicate your message(s).

This doesn’t mean making things simpler for you, the presenter (although there is plenty you can do to make your life easier). It means making things simpler for the audience – after all, the presentation is for them, not you, right?

Unnecessary complexity hinders communication and just plain annoys people. I was reminded of this by my experience yesterday with the French bureaucracy. We need to renew my son’s French passport, but before we can make the application, we need his birth certificate which has to be less than three months old. Odd.

To get this certificate, we had a choice. Either we could send a stamped addressed envelope and they would send it to us, or we could go to the nearest large town and get one printed there and then, which I chose to do. I showed my passport, gave his date of birth, and a very nice lady printed the certificate. So far, not too painful.

However, then I have to go to a different town hall to apply for the passport. Why couldn’t that be one transaction? I could just turn up with son and passport and make the application, and if they needed a birth certificate, they could print it there and then. Or even better, they could accept the original birth certificate rather than requiring one less than three months old (in other countries, you get a birth certificate at birth, and you keep it for life). Where’s the benefit to anyone of me going to get the certificate beforehand?

And the icing on the cake: before applying for the passport, we need to buy special stamps, not from the town hall, not from the post office, but from a ‘tabac’ (cigarette shop)! I’m sure there was a logic behind the design of this whole process, but it certainly wasn’t the logic of making it simple for the citizen.

Compare this with renewing their British passports, which involves sending a form by registered post with their expired passports. And they take credit cards. You’d think living in France it would be easier to renew their French passports, but it’s many times more complex.

France is a lovely country but of the five countries I have lived and worked in, it is by far the least simple for the citizen. Now, since I chose to live here, I just have to live with the bureaucracy, although I don’t have to like it. However, if the French bureaucracy were an application’s user interface, it would have no chance against well-designed competitors. And if it were a presentation, nobody would listen.

So back to presentations. Your job as the presenter is to make things as simple as possible for your audience so they understand your message. This means designing it with your audience in mind, and removing all unnecessary complexity. You can’t get all the details across in a presentation – good presentations have simple clear messages and few details – and if you try to include them all, people will likely remember very few of them. The old maxim “If you chase too many rabbits, you won’t catch any” is extremely relevant to a presentation.

Here are three tips to make it simple for your audience to understand and remember your messages:

  1. Choose one, two or three key messages, and make it clear what they are. No more than three. Don’t leave your audience thinking “So what?” or “What was her point?” – leave the audience in no doubt about the points you are making. Repeat them as well: state your key messages at least twice, and then once again in your conclusion. You’ll be amazed how this simple technique increases the audience’s retention of your messages.
  2. Use simple visuals. Get rid of all the unnecessary complexity in your slides – the visual pollution such as the date, your name and your logo, any words which don’t need to be there, any data points on a graph which are not absolutely necessary to get your message across, etc. The simpler your slides are, the more memorable they will be, and the more your audience will actually listen to what you are saying.
  3. Associate each message with an image. A large proportion of your audience will likely be visual thinkers, and it will be much easier for them to remember your messages if each of them is shown together with a powerful and relevant image. This could be a photograph, or it could be a simple and clear graph for example.

For example, I often use this image to convey the message that you should only make one point at a time when presenting, just like you only write or draw with one pencil at a time. It’s a simple message, which I tend to repeat, and the image makes it easier to remember.


Design your presentation with your audience’s understanding in mind. Make it simple for them to know what your key messages are, to understand them, and to remember them. Do this by choosing up to three key messages, and repeating them; simplifying your visuals; and associating each message with an image.

Unlike bureaucracy, which we just have to live with, nobody has to listen to your presentation. They have many other things they can be doing instead, and unnecessary complexity will turn them off quickly. Make it simple for them, and they will be happy to listen – and grateful that you make their life easier.

3 Responses to Keep it simple…

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rebecca Renner, RAL. RAL said: Keep it simple… […]

  2. dgmcgahan says:

    Stumbled across your site today. This is similar information that I evangelize. However, it seems much more difficult in the college lecture. We give some 40 to 50 presentations in a term. Our audience is supposed to come prepared, but less than adequate preparation by the audience often triggers a visceral response to give more information in the presentation. When we do include more information on the visuals we are enabling the very behavior that triggered our response to include more information on the visuals.

    I often say if 1) it is a full sentence, it does not belong on a slide, and 2) that the text is only a peg to hang the idea on, but I break my own rule, and I should not.

    The student asks for copies of the presentation and instructors think that they need to have the presentation stand alone. I am guilty of this and it is my nemesis.

    I really enjoyed the posts I’ve read here.

    • Phil Waknell says:

      Thanks for your kind words. College lectures are often the worst offenders when it comes to slideuments, and it is hard to break out of that when students come to expect detailed slides.

      If however you can show them that detailed notes are better than detailed slides; and furthermore, use the time with the class not to give a lecture but more to discuss WITH them about your topic, then you and they can achieve much more.

      I do this with my college ‘lectures’ about presenting, and the number one question I am asked afterwards is ‘When are you going to train the other professors?’ If you can have them think the same about your teaching style, then you’ll be on the right track!

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