The main thing I try to do is write as clearly as I can. I rewrite a good deal to make it clear.” – E.B. White

It could be argued that the editing process is more vital to writing than the act of writing itself. Your first draft is a hectic mess of cake batter: a mix of ingredients covering your hands, clothes, and kitchen. Editing is the moment when that mess is baked together to become something tangible and less gooey: a delicious cake.

When it comes to presentation content, Ethos3 follows a specific philosophy that informs the way we edit client work and our own writing. This is because we’ve seen it work firsthand…and also have built a business around these principles. Minimal content is always our core goal, but the idea behind it is much richer than that. Our aim is not to create telegraph shorthand on each slide, but rather, say what needs to be said in as few words as possible. No jargon, no fluff, just the facts.

Our writing goals are never reached in the first draft. Sometimes they don’t happen until the 7th draft, which can be intensely frustrating, but also offers a larger reward when client work and internal projects finally receive two thumbs up. When we approach editing more like a creative process and less like a drone-task for grammar aficionados, it can shape content in unexpected (and improved) ways.

In the same way that sketching isn’t drawing and mixing colors isn’t painting: first drafts merely scratch the surface of what it means to really write. Editing is part of writing—they aren’t two separate processes, but rather, one in the same.” – Hannah Rubin

When we edit a presentation, we look at three core areas to improve:

Here are some ways to improve each of these areas, with an additional checklist at the end to make sure your presentation content becomes the delicious cake it was meant to be.

Making It Shorter

When we say “shorter,” we don’t mean you should cram all of your ideas into two slides. Our focus is on keeping each slide design-friendly and visually appealing by reducing the amount of text overall. Each slide should contain one solitary idea: no more than that. If you add ten slides, but they are beautiful and each have a single word or two on the screen, you will spend the same amount of time explaining the same amount of concepts, but it will look infinitely more appealing.

Having a hard time getting rid of text on each slide? Not ready to “kill your darlings,” as Stephen King suggests? Consider trying these two challenges:

The “Twitter” Challenge – 140 characters is all that this social media site allows users to post. Trust us, people have become better editors because of it. Since slides don’t have to be read as complete sentences (you shouldn’t be reading directly from your slides anyways, tsk tsk!), consider taking our version of the “Twitter” challenge: 30 characters or less for each slide.

For example, instead of saying: “Our yearly profit report shows that profits have exceeded expectations,” say: “Profits are up,” which is 14 characters with spaces. It says what you need it to say, and anything else can be added verbally or shown with a chart, preferably on the next slide.

5-7-5 – We like to consider our presentations as a long poem, where each slide represents a new line in the piece. With this in mind, one fun technique to try is the 5-7-5, which is the formula for a haiku poem. This can be achieved in groups of three slides, where the first slide has 5 syllables, the second slide 7 syllables, and the conclusion has 5 syllables. We can use Ethos3 as an example. Let’s say that we want to write an introductory presentation about ourselves that will be uploaded to SlideShare. Our main idea is: “Ethos3 is an award-winning presentation design company based in Nashville. What can we design for you?” The 5-7-5 version would be:

We are Ethos3

Presentations are our thing

Let’s make one for you

Or maybe you are just trying to explain how awesome your marketing department has been in the last year. The core idea might be: “Our marketing department for Sam’s Bread has succeeded in landing twenty new clients this past month.” The 5-7-5 would look like:

Marketing has ruled

Twenty new clients

In only a month

In both instances, the unnecessary elements are cut. For instance, Ethos3 doesn’t have to say they are from Nashville; the slides could include a picture of the city. And Sam’s Bread doesn’t have to say which company they are, since this presentation will be used internally.

Reducing text on each slide is about slicing and dicing the things you will be explaining as you deliver, or the audience already knows. It’s about eliminating filler, run-on sentences, and sometimes even full sentences. Occasionally, all you need is a single word that can guide you through the structure of the talk, like “profits.” Presentations are much more flexible than MLA-formatted essays: there are no rules, only eyesores that occur when too much text is on-screen.

Making It Consistent

Consistency isn’t merely about using the word “cupidity” on one slide and “bro” on another. It’s ensuring your work is structured with a beginning/intro, middle/core, and end/outro. Main points should be revisited, stories should be wrapped up by the end, and themes should used throughout and not forgotten later.

Consistency can be achieved by creating an outline before you begin, or by writing down the key concept from each slide after you’ve finished the first draft. An outline could look a little something like this:

Slide 1 –  Title, “Yearly Report”

Slide 2 – Thought provoking question: “Have you seen our numbers?”

Slide 3 – Answer: “They’re amazing.”

Slide 4  – Chart to prove how amazing

Keeping an eye on your goal for each slide can prevent important points from slipping through the cracks or remaining unvisited later. The structure of your presentation should be carefully examined from start to finish, like a home inspector checking for leaks and rodents. Be sure to eliminate those rodents and fix any leaks.

Grammatically speaking, you should also be mindful that all of your verb tenses lineup for consistency. Here is an example of that from Purdue:

Incorrect:The instructor explains the diagram to students who asked questions during the lecture.

Correct:The instructor explains the diagram to students who ask questions during the lecture.

Hint: “Explains” is in present tense, and “asked” is in past tense in the first example. If a presentation is a long poem, then all of the verbs and tenses should be aligned throughout the deck in order to maintain consistency for both tone and wording.

Making It Powerful

If you wouldn’t want to sit through your own presentation, no one else will. Editing for impact sometimes requires that you take a step back (or several) and let someone else look at your content. It also means that you spend a little more time revising and refining your call-to-action at the end, ensuring the audience is left with their jaws dropped.

Since this element of editing is more about the “feel” of a presentation and less about the technical aspects, it’s hard to assign strict do’s and dont’s. When we edit presentations for impact at Ethos3, we try to keep an eye on how all of the main points strengthen the conclusion (AKA “the big finish”), and how much personal or relatable storytelling elements are being used.

The audience should be taken on a journey throughout your presentation. It starts with them sitting down, not knowing the information they are about to hear. Then gradually, in bits and pieces like a trail of breadcrumbs, your story is told until it reaches the gingerbread house at the end.

As you edit, be sure you aren’t leaving out a personal element to your presentation, no matter what story you have to tell. Take a risk with your audience’s emotions: choose to share something personal in a presentation that might not initially seem like it would fit. Many presentations we edit are technically perfect, but missing that “human touch.”

The Triple-Check List

After you’ve worked through some larger editing issues like consistency, revisit your work for some of the smaller issues before you finalize the draft. Here are a few things to ask yourself:

Have you read the entire presentation out loud to check for mistakes?

Has anyone else read it?

Are your verbs in the right tense?

Are your main takeaways clear?

Is the text short and to-the-point on each slide?

Is there a logical order to the slides?

Do you have a strong conclusion and call-to-action?

Consider your audience: are you repeating anything they already know?

Sometimes editing requires you to take a step away from the project and revisit it with fresh eyes. We often have a day or so between each round of edits at Ethos3, which helps us take a breather and revisit our content goals later.

Editing is so much more than crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s; it’s about refining your creation and improving your own understanding of the content. When done mindfully, editing can ensure that you can enjoy the delicious double-layer German chocolate cake that is your presentation.

Question: How can you refine your presentation content? 


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