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This is a PowerPoint slide. It shows diagrams in the shapes of the letters U, G, and H.

You Probably Can’t Read This, But…

When I’m watching a slide presentation, no matter how distracted I am, there is one phrase that will always snap me to attention:

“You probably can’t read this, but…”

I put this in a category with such phrases as, “This is the school nurse calling” and “It looks like the cat brought you a present.” There are a lot of things that can follow these statements, and none of them are good.

In the case of presentations, the Illegibility Disclaimer is invariably followed by a slide that will prompt colleagues (should they happen to be watching the same presentation) to text me the exploding head emoji. (True story.) This slide will feature tiny text…maybe letters, maybe numbers, maybe (if we’re lucky!) both. That text will be grouped in some way…maybe it’s a 47-item list, maybe it’s a diagram that looks like an octopus rave. Regardless of configuration, the presenter is right…I definitely can’t read it.

If, when preparing a presentation, you ever find yourself about to give the Illegibility Disclaimer, stop. Let go of the flicker of hope that everyone in your audience will have freaky-good eyesight. They won’t. That slide has got to go.

“But, wait!” you say. “That slide has really important stuff on it!”

OK, so maybe it does. Here are some ways to lose disclaimer-worthy slides without losing key information:

  • Pare it down. Lots of us present on complex topics with many interrelated components. Realistically, you’re not going to talk about all of them. Focus your slides on the need-to-know info. Maybe your audience only needs to see the big picture and not the details. Maybe they only need to see part of a model. Maybe they don’t need to see numbers with eight decimal places, or maybe your diagram doesn’t need sentence-long labels.

This is a PowerPoint slide with the letters U, G, H. This is a PowerPoint slide. It shows a diagram in the shape of the letter U, followed by the letters G and H.

  • Split it up. In the words of Seth Godin, slides are free. Break your complex content into topical chunks, and use separate slides to talk about each.

This is a PowerPoint slide. It shows a diagram in the shape of the letter U, followed by the letters G and H. This is a PowerPoint slide. It shows the letter U, followed by a diagram in the shape of the letter G, followed by the letter H.. This is a PowerPoint slide. It shows the letters U and G, followed by a diagram in the shape of the letter H.

  • Make it a handout. On the off chance that your audience really needs to see a detailed list or table or diagram, print it out at a size that’s legible for most sets of eyeballs.

Aim to be the presenter that makes my colleagues send me the heart-eyes emoji.

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