Too Much Information (TMI)

Four Antidotes for Presenters Who Share Too Much

Have you ever wondered why speakers:

Create presentations with more dense, text-heavy, unreadable slides than they can use?

Include charts and graphs that are impossible to read, let alone understand?

Data-speak and rarely get to the main point?

There are numerous studies indicating that hundreds of millions of dollars in productivity are lost each year due to information overload. Meanwhile, server farms, which house internet, business and telecommunications systems, consume 3% of our national power supply; worldwide, servers consume more power annually than Sweden – so that we can send ever larger documents that many of us will never read.


And even though we intuitively know that presentations with too much data, confusing charts and densely populated slides are distracting if not counterproductive, we somehow find ourselves compelled to overload our audience.

Here are four possible reasons, and suggested antidotes, for the Presenter TMI syndrome:

1st Do you dread “being found out”: that the audience will discover you aren’t really an expert? You operate under the assumption that an expert must know everything and then overwhelm people with data, so that they will know that you know what you are talking about. As one of my clients said to me, “Sometimes I hide behind the data.”

Antidote: Ask yourself: “Do I know more than most people in my audience?” If yes, then ask, “What would be useful for my audience to know?” If no, then ask, “What is there about my area of expertise that will be complementary: a fresh perspective, including stories they can’t know because they are yours, data points that aren’t standard industry statistics. If you can’t compete with what your audience knows, don’t try to. But remember, you’ve been invited to speak because you have something unique to say – so say it.

Prove yourself by being on the audience’s wavelength. Don’t try to prove your competence with data.

2nd Are you of the mindset that quantity can compensate for any lapse in quality? Do you remember being in school, thinking that if you filled every page in the test booklet, you would get an “A”? I do. If wrote on every single page, I walked out of the classroom thinking I had aced the test. No doubt my answers included irrelevant data, but, by golly, my professor would know that I had read everything. When you spend the majority of your time adding more slides in your appendix, there’s no mental bandwidth left to focus on key messages and recommendations.

Antidote: Ask yourself: “What parts of my data are relevant to my audience?” When you think you have the right amount of information, ask the question again, and cut the amount of data in half. You will be surprised at how much you can cut out and still convey your key messages. Much of my one-on-one coaching focuses on helping clients display executive presence by conveying only the information required to make a decision.

Outperform on the focused bits of information and stories that people actually need to make a decision. Stop over-performing on the quantity of data you share.

3rd Are you clear about the big picture of your presentation? How many times have you wanted to ask a presenter, “So tell me, how does what you said all fit together?” We all have – so let me give you an example of what happens when we do operate from the big picture.

Phil Lawler, a gym teacher at Naperville Junior High, has revolutionized physical education. All the kids run a mile every day and use heart-rate monitors. As a consequence, children’s fitness levels have soared, as well as their grades. How did this happen? Lawler, I believe, asked himself, “What should be the overarching goal of gym?” With the answer came a new approach to physical education. His is a fitness rather than a competitive model, one that involves running, heart rate monitors, and kids playing “small-sided sports” like three-on-three basketball or four-on-one soccer, rather than traditional team sports. As Lawler prioritized and set goals for the kids, transforming his approach to physical education, he improved fitness and grades. The same goes for presentations: when we identify the big picture and the major goals, we will be very clear about which data to use and what to discard.

Link to: Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and The Brain (page 17) by John Ratey with Eric Hagerman.

Antidote: Ask yourself: “Does every single piece of data, line of text, chart and graph support the big picture of this topic? The minutiae of a presentation have one job and one job only – to support the big picture. As you think about the overarching goal of the presentation, you may decide to do what one of my clients recently did. He set aside all 25 of his slides and simply sat down and listened to a potential client discuss his company’s present situation.

Start with the big picture, only adding what is essential to clarify that picture. Stop using the TMI approach.

4th Have you limited your key messages? Your key messages are not your agenda. They are the main points you share when someone very high up in the organization tells you, “I can’t make it to your talk. What should I remember from it?” A terrific example of limiting key messages is a TED talk by Sheryl Sandberg. (TED is a website that presents riveting talks by remarkable people.) Sandberg made three points, supplementing them with stories:

  • Sit at the table—literally and figuratively.
  • Make your partner in life a real partner.
  • Don’t leave the workforce before you leave. (Focus on your career until the day you leave.

Antidote: Ask yourself: What are the three key messages of the presentation? Before you even create the first slide of your presentation, write down your three key messages. Then ask at least three people if they agree these should be your three key messages. Repeat this process until you’ve distilled your presentation into three laser-focused messages – an elevator pitch for someone who couldn’t attend. Hint: If you want to test how well you are doing, when you give your next presentation and people are live tweeting, what did they tweet? Did they tweet back what you thought you said?

First write down your 3 key messages. Stop making your slides before you’ve identified your messages.

When you stop the TMI approach to presentations, you will end up with a more satisfied audience and, in reality, more time to focus on your other priorities in life.