There was a great piece in the Washington Post titled, “We instinctively add on new features and fixes. Why don’t we subtract instead?” Here is helpful summary from the article of the research conducted by the authors: 

“[W]hen asked to change or improve something, people tend to overlook the option to subtract parts. We asked research participants to make changes to designs, essays, recipes, itineraries, structures and even miniature-golf holes. Our studies showed that people’s first instinct is to change things by adding. When they are able and willing to think a little longer, they are perfectly capable of finding subtractive changes. But they usually don’t think longer. They quickly identify an additive idea that is good enough, put it into action and move on.”

This is relevant to public speakers. At Spoken with Authority, we all too often see our clients struggle because they’ve added too much detail in their presentations or too many words, colors, or fonts on their slides. And, they don’t plan enough time to craft, edit, and rehearse their presentation. Here are questions we ask speakers during our purposeful speechmaking process to improve their presentation through the power of subtraction:

  • How can you narrow your central idea or thesis? 
  • If you only had 30 seconds to give your presentation, what would you say? 
  • How can you distill sentences on your speech outline to words and phrases?
  • Can you remove one of your main points to streamline your presentation?
  • How can you cut time from your presentation so there is more time for questions or other audience engagement?
  • What supporting data, facts, or evidence are most compelling and which can you leave out?
  • Are your slides actually your presentation, or are they a report to provide before or after it? 
  • Can you distill your report to a simple set of slides for your presentation, or can you eliminate slides altogether?
  • How can you make a brief argument with the text on each slide (rather than providing long, written explanations)? 

And while we often encourage our clients to subtract from their presentations, there are some common additions that can make presentations better. Here are questions we frequently ask speakers to spur them to improve their presentation through the power of addition:

  •  What stories, and especially personal stories, can you share to make your presentation more concrete and authentic?
  • What images can you show while telling each story to make it even more memorable?
  • What graphs, charts, maps, or diagrams can you add to help listeners better understand numbers, comparisons, locations, or processes you discuss in your presentations?
  • How can you repeat key ideas, orally and visually, throughout your presentation?
  • Could you add a valuable handout or resource page to help listeners?
  • Where can you add audience engagement?
  • Can you add an evaluation at the end of your presentation to collect feedback?

Want to see an example of several of these concepts of the power of subtraction and addition? Here’s a favorite and classic TED Talk from 2012 by Joe Smith titled, “How to use a paper towel”, which is a fitting selection for Earth day. It is only four-minutes long, simple in concept, narrow in purpose, and delivered without slides or notes. But, it masterfully incorporates props, repetition, call and response, and humor.