Article Category: Visual Aids

The 10-20-30 Rule: Guy Kawasaki on PowerPoint

You’ve just been asked to give a project update to your colleagues at next week’s lunch-hour seminar.

How many slides will you use?
How much text can you put on them?
How long should you speak — the whole hour, or less?

Don’t know? Guy Kawasaki, a famous author and venture capitalist, has the answers and they may surprise you.

What is the 10-20-30 Rule for PowerPoint?

Guy Kawasaki framed his 10-20-30 Rule for PowerPoint as:

  • 10 slides are the optimal number to use for a presentation.
  • 20 minutes is the longest amount of time you should speak.
  • 30 point font is the smallest font size you should use on your slides.

You can read his pitch here, and you can see his pitch below (or here):

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What I Love About the 10-20-30 Rule for PowerPoint

If everyone were to follow this advice, the overall quality of business presentations everywhere would improve dramatically. If you stop reading now and follow this advice religiously, I wouldn’t complain too much.

#1: 10 Slides Constrains the Presenter to Choose Wisely

Sure, 10 may seem like an arbitrary number, but putting a limit on the number of slides you are allowed is a valuable constraint. Most people probably have 20, or 30, or 100 slides for a 1-hour presentation. Trimming this number down to 10 forces you to evaluate the necessity of each and every slide. Just like every element of your presentation, if the slide isn’t necessary, it should be cut.

It also encourages a presenter to design wisely. Often a single well-designed diagram eliminates the need for 5 bullet-point slides.

#2: 20 Minutes is Long Enough to Communicate Something Big

Often a single well-designed diagram eliminates the need for 5 bullet-point slides.

Just like the constraint on the number of slides, a constraint on your speaking time will force you to edit mercilessly. Trim the sidebar jokes. Trim the gratuitous “I’m happy to be here” pleasantries. Trim the stories which aren’t essential to conveying your message. Trim the details that only 5% of the audience cares about — send them out via email later. When you are able to trim all the extras, you can communicate with precision and concision.

Martin Luther King Jr. only needed 17 minutes to share his dream. What makes you think you need more?

#3: 30-Point Font Guarantees Readability

Unless you have a very large audience and a very small projector screen (it has happened to me), 30-point font should be readable by everyone in your audience.  Bigger is probably better, but this is a sensible lower threshold to adopt.

While a 30-point font still allows you to put too many words on a slide, at least your audience will be able to read them.

What I Hate About the 10-20-30 Rule for PowerPoint

There are very few strict rules for public speaking, and these don’t qualify. Here’s a few reasons why you should consider them guidelines, but not rules.

#1: Every Situation is Unique

First, remember Guy Kawasaki’s context for the rule: 1-hour presentations from entrepreneurs to venture capitalists. He’s a successful venture capitalist, so let’s assume his rule is perfect for that scenario.

But does this scenario match your next presentation? If not, then be careful about applying the wisdom to your personal situation.

#2: There’s no Perfect Number of Slides

Develop your content first, and then add slides as necessary.

“How many slides should I have?” is one of the most frequent questions I hear. Somebody asks it every time I deliver my PowerPoint design course.

The wrong answers are numerous:

  • You should always have 10 slides
  • You should always have one slide per minute
  • You should always have one slide per major point
  • You should have no more than 5 slides

The right answer is: How many slides do you need?

How many slides are necessary for you to convey your message in an effective and memorable way? It might be zero. It might be one. It might be 200. It depends heavily on the nature of your content, the message you are delivering, and the complexity of your slides.

Develop your content first, and then add slides as necessary.

#3: There’s no Perfect Duration to Speak

The 20 minute suggestion assumes a 1-hour time slot. So, the rule is really saying that you should speak for one-third of your allowed time and leave two-thirds for Q&A. That’s not a bad guideline. In fact, it’s a very good general guideline.

But, it depends. Maybe the format of your event just doesn’t allow for Q&A within or after the presentation. Maybe you are doing a product demo which takes 10 minutes, and you’ve only got a 12-minute time slot. (That’s cutting it close!) Maybe the conference is running 35 minutes behind and you are the last speaker of the day. Or, maybe your audience is better served by a 1-minute speech and a 59-minute Q&A.

Consider the needs of your audience, and choose the best presentation format that will meet those needs.

#4: There’s no Perfect Font Size

30-point font might be an optimal size, but it might be too small or too large. The optimal size depends on several factors:

  • how much text is on your slides (aim for less!)
  • the contrast between the text and background colors
  • the lighting in the room
  • the distance between your audience and the screen
  • the quality of the projector
  • the vision of your audience
  • the time of day (Is your audience tired? Have they been looking at slides all day?)

If you have any doubts, go large.

#5: Size Matters, but Quantity Matters More

To be blunt, it doesn’t matter what the font size is as long as your audience can easily read the words. It is, however, much more important to take a step back from your slides and assess whether the words you’ve got are necessary at all. Neither you nor your audience should be reading lengthy passages of text from your slides. Your audience should be listening to you, and the slides are just visual aids.

#6: If Everybody’s Following the Rules, Maybe You Shouldn’t

One of the strengths of Guy Kawasaki’s advice is that, if you follow it, you are likely to stand out from your peers in a good way. They are probably using too many slides, speaking too long, and putting too much small text on the slides. Standing out as a speaker is a good thing.

But, maybe your colleagues are disciples of Guy Kawasaki. Maybe the 10-slide, 20-minute briefing is commonplace, and your corporate template is set to 30-point font. That’s when the environment is ripe for doing something different. Don’t just change it up for the sake of doing so, but watch for an opportunity where presenting without slides or presenting with 200 makes sense, and go for it.

The Verdict

I applaud Guy Kawasaki’s efforts to use his influence to improve the presentation status quo. He has reached many people with his message; if you are still reading this article, then he’s reaching you too. Overall, the impact of his rule has inched us collectively in the right direction.

But… the 10-20-30 Rule shouldn’t be viewed as a strict rule. (And, for the record, I don’t think Guy Kawasaki views it a strict rule either.) It’s a sound guideline which you should always consider, but make your choices based on your audience, your message, and your own personal style.

Your Thoughts?

What’s your verdict on the 10-20-30 Rule? Should it be embossed onto the surface of every digital projector in the world?

This is one of many public speaking articles featured on Six Minutes.
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