The Freedom of Constraints

When you love something, sometimes you have to constrain it. That’s at least the case when you love clear communications, because without constraints on your PowerPoint you’re easily imprisoned by confusion.

Journalist and MIT fellow Michael Schrage said in an interview that recent calls to ban PowerPoint are missing the point, because:

“The issue is not banning PowerPoint – it’s about putting constraints on it. For example, limit a PowerPoint to no more than 10 slides, no more than 20 words, and 2 of those slides have to have pictures or charts. Just as in the strict rhyming structure of sonnets or haiku, art is defined by constraints. A problem with PowerPoint is that you can just create another slide.”

What would happen if we followed Michael’s suggestion and started to practice the self-discipline of PowerPoint constraints? I have a feeling that focus, clarity and dialogue would break free from overloaded slides, overwhelming decks and underwhelming results.chain

There’s a very high price to be paid when we don’t discipline our PowerPoint to stay within the research-based bounds of what our minds can handle and our memories can hold. We pay the price of frustrated goals, diminished reputation and lost opportunities; because our audience is trapped in cognitive overload, unclear information hierarchy and lack of focus.

Here are some constraints that can help us, and our audiences, break out of our prisons of confusion:

Tip: Follow the 3 Constraints of PowerPoint Self-Discipline:

1. Limit your PowerPoint to only 10 slides. Choose View –> Slide Sorter and review your storyboard. How many ideas are contained in all of your slides? Conventional wisdom, and science, say the mind can only retain 3 or 4 independent ideas at a time. Where are your 3 or 4 most important ideas hidden? Find them and give them breathing room across only 10 slides. You may have 50 slides today, but the very process of editing, distilling and condensing your story down to 10 will help you think more clearly. You can always add more slides later.

2. Place only 1 main idea on each slide. One of the biggest problems today is we simply heap information on slides well beyond the mind’s cognitive breaking point. There is often no information hierarchy, which guides the eye first to the most important element. Free up some clarity by summarizing your main idea in a single headline, then choose a single image to illustrate your singular idea. Strip away everything else from your slide — the other material will only distract and keep clarity imprisoned.

3. Focus your entire story on resolving only 1 central conflict. A common PowerPoint flaw is the absence of a compelling problem that focuses attention and makes your communication directly relevant to your audience. Find the core conflict at the heart of your story, and save your other stories for other presentations.

Just so we’re not being too severe with all of these constraints, let’s add one area to the list where we should be very permissive:

4. Collaborate with your team at least 3 times before presenting. Show your team your drafts as you go along, asking for their opinions on your headlines, your 10 slides, and the central conflict of your story. As you present your drafts, you get a chance to rehearse; and your team gets a chance to contribute and take ownership in the process.

When we start off every PowerPoint by imposing the constraints of these 3 self-disciplines, we only have the imprisonment of confusion to lose, and the freedom of clarity to gain.

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5 Responses to “The Freedom of Constraints”

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