Beyond 10-20-30

I like the spirit of Guy Kawasaki’s 10-20-30 rule. If you’re not familiar with it, take a look at this short entertaining video.

He is basically saying: don’t overload your audience; keep it simple; and use text that’s big enough to be legible by the whole audience. Amen to all that.

However, many people take Guy’s advice out of context and apply it to the letter. Yet Guy was giving advice to entrepreneurs pitching to venture capitalists – a very specific presentation context. He was saying that you should aim to pitch in 20 minutes, with ten slides – and not just any ten slides, but these ten slides (he lists what should be on each slide).

Now for an investor pitch, that’s pretty good advice, although it can be taken to extremes, and I’ve already talked about how you need to go beyond being informative, and also make sure your pitch is memorable.

But the 10-20-30 advice just doesn’t hold up for any other kind of presentation. The spirit is spot-on, and I applaud Guy’s intentions, but you shouldn’t take his advice to the letter – Guy certainly doesn’t follow it religiously in his recent (very good) Enchantment presentations. Here’s why we need to go beyond 10-20-30.

10 slides

So you’re not doing an investor pitch. You therefore aren’t going to use exactly the same ten slides Guy told you to use. At least, I hope you’re not going to have a slide about your business model if you’re speaking at a wedding. But should you use ten slides?

I always say that there is no right number of slides – just use one message per slide, and if that slide needs to be on the wall for three seconds or three minutes, so be it. If you need no slides, use no slides – many of the best presentations use zero slides. If you need a few slides here and there, ensure the screen is blank at times when no slide is required.

Clearly there’s no point in overwhelming your audience with information. But the main reason for that is not that the audience can only remember a small amount of information: it is simply because a presentation is not a good way of sharing information. As Garr Reynolds wrote in The Naked Presenter, “If the lone goal is the transfer of information, you are better off distributing a handout and canceling the presentation.”

So I don’t buy the argument about giving an audience only ten things to see because they can’t remember any more. Getting the audience to remember each slide is not your goal. But you want them to remember your call to action, your key message, your inspiration – and the images you project are ways to help you achieve that goal.

So don’t blindly use ten slides. Use as many as you need – no more – whether that means zero or hundreds.


20 minutes

So I don’t buy the 10-slide rule. Do I like the 20-minute rule any better? For an investor pitch (at least, for a first pitch), I tend to think it’s too long. Investors decide in the first 30 seconds whether they care about you and your idea, so get your key value across well in the first 30 seconds, and then aim to tell them more for about 5-10 minutes. And then open up for questions and let them find out what they most want to know in whatever time remains.

For any other kind of presentation, 20 minutes is a long time. TED keeps every presentation to 18 minutes, based on 1970s US Navy research showing that was the maximum span of full attention for a student. Yet Garr makes the point that attention spans are getting shorter:

My own experience tells me that the average attention span of an audience is much shorter than 18 minutes today, and the amount of time people are willing or able to endure a speaker they find boring is pretty close to zero minutes. (The Naked Presenter, chapter 5)

This is why for our Ideas on Stage conferences, we have the 12-25-90 rule: most presentations last 12 minutes; a few keynotes last 25 minutes, although that requires a top-notch speaker to maintain the audience’s attention for that long; and the audience is never seated for more than 90 minutes at a time. Even the 12-minute talks require an experienced, trained and well-rehearsed speaker. And in fact, this year some of the best talks lasted less than ten minutes.

So what do you do if you are scheduled to present for an hour? Well, I often run three-day training courses. And the key to maintaining attention for an hour, a day or three days is to reset the audience’s attention every 10 minutes or so, as recommended by Dr John Medina, author of Brain Rules. That means breaking the presentation up into smaller chunks. It means running an exercise, or showing a video, or having a coffee-break. When Garr was running his Presentation Zen European Seminar with us in Paris last month, the five hours simply flew by, because the seminar was full of exercises and videos to reset the audience’s attention.

So I’m not a fan of the 20-minute rule either, although I agree entirely with its spirit. Ten to twelve minutes should be your aim if possible, and if you are required to speak for longer, break it up into ten-minute chunks with something to reset the audience’s attention between chunks.

30-point fonts

So do I like the 30-point rule? Well, again I agree with the spirit. You need to make sure that any text or numbers on your slide (yes, even the labels on your pie chart) are easy to read for the sexagenarians in the back row who don’t want to put their glasses on. If you’re not sure your text is big enough, it’s not.

Guy offers a further rule: take the age of the oldest audience member, and divide it by two, and that’s your optimum font size. So in most business presentations, you’re rarely going to need anything bigger than 34 points according to that rule.

Sadly, this is too simplistic. Most often, when I talk about the 30-point rule to slideument addicts who are just being introduced to Presentation 2.0, the reaction is “Wow, that’s big!” But no, it’s not. It depends on your software, the resolution of your slides, the size of the projection screen and the distance from the screen to the back row. (And the font.)

If you are using PowerPoint in a standard mode, 30 points often seems just about big enough. If you are using Keynote in a fairly high resolution, 30 points looks very small. And again, it depends on the room and the screen. I took the photo below in a large French government amphitheatre. I was only halfway back, yet from where I stood, and indeed from the front row, the only legible text was the title. Can you read it? Can you read any more? Can you guess how big the title text was?

The title was 64 points. That was still not really big enough in that room with that screen. It might have been enough with PowerPoint, but not with the high-resolution mode in Keynote. Yet in some of my slides, I can use text as small as 24 points if I am in a small room with a large screen.

Quite simply, any presentation is meant to be delivered to a specific audience in a specific room on a specific date, in a particular context. You can’t try one-size-fits-all with a presentation unless you want a poor result. So if you’re going to take that approach with your presentation, do the same with your slides. Work out what size of text is big enough in that room on that screen with that font with that software and for that kind of audience. And if you’re not sure, make it bigger. Often, 30 points won’t be anywhere near big enough.


So I don’t much go for 10-20-30 as a set of hard-and-fast rules. They have some relevance for investor pitches, and if you look at the detail of Guy’s advice for entrepreneurs, it is fantastic. Their spirit is also very good in terms of any other presentation. I just disagree with the numbers. In fact, for me, if a presentation should last 10 minutes, 20 slides would be a pretty good number to use in many cases, so I’d like the rule better if the 10-20 parts were the other way round. And while big fonts are necessary, 30 points often won’t be big enough.

We need to take the spirit of Guy’s advice, and go beyond 10-20-30. Don’t overwhelm your audience, but inspire them; don’t let their attention wane or take too much of their time, but keep them interested and reset their attention regularly; and make sure your slides are clear and easy to understand for your whole audience. It’s not as catchy as 10-20-30. But I believe it’s better advice. And it’s certainly what Guy does when he’s on stage.

5 Responses to Beyond 10-20-30

  1. Thumbs up, could you read my mind Phil?
    Go beyond 10-20-30.

  2. Peter says:

    Interesting points about point-size. I also like the idea of regularly re-setting the audience attention. Great post.

  3. […] Beyond 10-20-30 ( […]

  4. Nice quote, Phil: “If you’re not sure your text is big enough, it’s not”! And very interesting comments (and photographic evidence!) on the topic. Good to see just how small even 64-point text can sometimes appear.

    When I first heard the 10-20-30 rule, I loved its simplicity and power, and how it so dramatically attacks archetypal, awful presentations.

    So I think it has a place, and I like the spirit behind it, as you do.

    Recently I saw Guy Kawasaki promoting his book Enchantment, and he suggested people use the 10-20-30 rule in general. (See the 22’50” mark: In that webinar, though, he didn’t actually follow the rule himself, which was weird and seemed to be saying he didn’t want to enchant us – his audience! When people offer advice but seem not to follow it themselves, it’s very suspect!

    I think we in the presenting community need to create substitutes for 10-20-30 that are just as punchy. My own attempt is called the FiRST framework (

    Anyway, thanks for a thoughtful and persuasive post.

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