The Art of Leaving Things out

The Art of Leaving Things Out

Editing is hard. I’m not just talking about spillcheck* here. I’m talking about honing the message. Getting precise, sharpening the point. Let’s face it, people spend a lot more time in crafting the message (additive) than refining it (subtractive). Simply put, to err is human, to edit is not.

I base this on sitting through keynotes from professional speakers, authors and sundry experts, and presentations from business leaders, strategists, project managers and marketers. They could do with a good edit. To be fair, my work could too. The same goes for the people we help build messages, pitchdecks and keynotes. As a presenter, you probably suffer from the same problem I do — We know too much, and we’re too passionate about it. That sounds like a good thing but it’s not. Knowing too much means it’s hard to decide where to start or what level to pitch your presentation to an audience that doesn’t know as much as you. Being too passionate about it means that it’s tough to cut something out. That’s why editing is hard.

The secret of being a bore… is to tell everything.

That’s according to Voltaire. According to Mark Twain, It’s hard to write a shorter letter. You know it. We perceive people that do it well as more thoughtful, funnier, smarter. We’re all caught between the rock of the laundry list of stuff to say, and the hard place of clearing the clutter. But editing – the art of leaving things out, is a good discipline to have. And if you haven’t got it, you need to build it. When it comes to presentations, here’s how.

Focus on a shorter time.

Ted presentations are limited to 18 minutes. Think about that. First of all it’s an odd number. It’s not 20 or 15. It’s 18. I’m sure it makes presenters pay attention to timing and editing. If you have a pitch coming up, or a critical meeting, and it’s set for 45 minutes, make your presentation 18 minutes. Not 30 with 15 minutes for Q&A.

First Edit

Your first edit should come at the outline or storyboard stage. Every slide must have a point. Have your slides taped up on a wall in front of you and tell someone else, a colleague, a friend, the point of each slide. If you can’t tell them what the slide is for in a sentence, scrub it.

The Hook

Your deck will come in three parts, the Hook, Meat and Payoff. The Hook is the opening to your presentation and has to be great. Work hard on that and work on it early. Again with taped up slides on the wall, speak your opening. Tighten it up, make it brief. If that goes well, chances are you’ll have a good presentation.

Edit for Flow

As you work through your slides, make sure that point flows naturally and easily to the next. You can and should do this in the early stages of building your presentation, but also in the final dry-run. Make sure there are no jarring segues or rabbit holes that you go down. Build a logical case.

Turn Every Label Into A Headline

You may have a few slides that have labels as a title instead of a headline. You want to change that. A label, a short sentence fragment like Q4 Highlights, doesn’t really help the audience. Better to turn it into a headline like New Product Releases Drive Strong Revenue.

Look for White Space

Would you make a presentation without pausing for breath? Stuffing a slide with content and not letting it breathe is the visual equivalent. If you have a lot on the slide, like this one.

Bad Slide - no whitespace

It’s great to have data on a slide, but do you really need that many data points to make your point? What is the point? If you have a slide that looks like this, think again.

Eye Flow

If you look in the mirror to straighten your tie or retouch your lipstick before a presentation, you might want to give your slides the same courtesy. Does every slide in the deck look like it’s part of a put-together wardrobe? Or do you have sneakers to go with your suit? Perhaps an old cardigan from goodwill? Whatever look you’re going for, make it put together, consistent fonts, lined up objects and edges, no distorted pictures.

Lastly, Apply The 8ft Rule.

Before you take your deck out on stage, and after you’ve finished putting it together, apply the 8 ft rule. Stand up from your desk and move back 8 – 10 ft. You’re at the equivalent distance of someone in the back of the room. Can you clearly see the points you’re trying to make? Can you read every word without strain? If you can, congratulations, you’ve passed.

Now you’re ready to go.

*I’ve had some concerned comments and feedback about my use of spillcheck. Rest assured that it’s not a mistake, it’s my lame attempt at irny.

Gavin_Animated-GifGavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

More at Google+Facebook and Pinterest. Comments are welcome, links are appreciated. If you’re interested in writing guest posts for this blog, please contact me.


  1. Terri Cheney | November 7, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    One of my favorite quotes is attributed to Mark Twain. He sent a manuscript to his publisher with a note saying, “Sorry this is so long. I didn’t have time to write something short.”

  2. Paul Scivetti (@theideaguy) | November 28, 2013 at 1:09 am

    Excellent post. Building a great presentation is like sculpting a stature from marble – it is hard work to remove the extraneous material, but remove it you must to reveal the masterpiece hidden inside.

    Once variant on the ‘8ft technique’ I use is to put the slides into slide sorter view. If you can easily ready your words, the text size is OK.

    • Gavin | November 28, 2013 at 10:04 am

      Paul – thanks – that’s a great idea. Gavin

  3. latebloomergrads | December 5, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    After every presentation, I review my PowerPoint slides to update, revise, delete or somehow make it better for the next one. Every audience has something different to contribute and I use that info to keep my presentation relevant and interesting.

Leave a Reply to latebloomergrads Cancel reply