Your presentation shouldn’t do double duty as your “leave behind” document

Do you prefer busy, overfilled slides? If you’re like most people, I’m guessing you don’t.

OK, now a harder question. Do you present busy, overfilled slides? If you’re like most people, I’m guessing you do.

Why the disconnect? Why do so many of us do something that we don’t like for ourselves? More importantly, why do we do something that we know really isn’t effective?

This issue comes up in almost all of my workshops.

The three main reasons that people give for overcrowded, busy, and ineffective slides are:

1)   They want to make it so that anyone can give the presentation.

2)   They want to help themselves remember what to say.

3)   They want the slide deck to be a “leave behind” document or available for people who didn’t attend the presentation.

The first two issues are problems for a different article. Spoiler alert: If you aren’t intimately familiar with a presentation’s content, you shouldn’t be giving it.

But, on to the issue of this article.

Presentation (slides) and leave-behind documents should different. Otherwise you sub-optimize both. You wind up with presentations that are too detailed to be effective and leave-behinds that aren’t detailed enough.

Good communication requires good, intentional design. Try out my “3S” framework for designing your content.

Say – What’s your story? What are you going to tell your audience (e.g., “say” out loud)? 

Show – Are there any parts of your story that need to be reinforced or clarified with a visual?

Support – What additional detailed information will your audience need to make sense of or remember your story? What will they need in order to take action on what you’ve told them? People tend to remember stories but not data, facts, and information. Therefore, focus your presentation on the story and your “leave behind” document for the data.

Each “S” should have its own deliverable with mostly its own discrete content. That deliverable should be optimized for its format and delivery vehicle. Of course certain key items or ideas might be reinforced across all three deliverables. But how you treat them should differ.

In addition, it’s important to do the steps in the order that I described: Say –> Show –> Support.

A common mistake that most people make is to start with “show”. They design their presentation right in Powerpoint/Google Slides. This creates two problems which lead to bad presentations.

First, Powerpoint (or Google Slides), causes you think about your content discretely rather than as a continuous story. Your focus becomes each individual slide rather than a continuous, connected flow. That’s why so many slide presentations feel choppy and disconnected. It’s also why so many presentations don’t actually have a story. They are just dumps of facts and information.

Second, your presentations (number of slides) tend to be longer. When you start by asking “what should I put on this slide?” it assumes that you need a slide. Nature fills a vacuum. There’s always SOMETHING that you can put on an empty slide. On the other hand, when you start with your story and ask, “What needs to be reinforced?”, you will be much more selective about what you actually show.

The idea of starting with the story isn’t new. Think about a movie. The treatment and script always come first. It’s only after they figure out the story that they begin to think about the costumes, sets, design, camera blocking, and other visual aspects of how they are going to tell it.

It may take longer to build, but a good presentation should have three separate deliverables: the story that you actually tell, the visual support that you provide, and the documentation that you leave behind. Each deliverable should be designed and optimized for its intended purpose.

Here are a couple of examples of Say-Show-Support in action.

Example 1: Cognitive bias activity in training workshop

In my workshop, I lead an activity to get people thinking about cognitive biases. The activity puts individuals in the role of a bouncer at a club. Their job is to determine which of the 10,000 people waiting outside the club should be allowed in. The club only has a capacity of 100 people.

Say: I introduce the activity similarly to how I described it above. I also add a few more caveats out their role and attitude as bouncer.

Show: I show two slides during this activity. The first is a graphic showing a club with a bunch of people waiting to get in. I put this up while I describe the challenge. This is simply to provide a visual anchor for the activity. The second slide is simply five words “Who would you let in?” I put this up when I let them loose to work on the activity.

Support: Their participant guide has a summary about what cognitive biases are and how they impact decision making. It also contains a summary of the cognitive biases that they learn about doing this activity.

Example 2: Reporting findings from healthcare study

An analytics team studied the effects of integrating social workers with medical staff in treating patients. They discovered that when doing so, overall health improved.

Say: The team framed the issue of integrated versus non-integrated treatment. They told a story about a patient who had integrated treatment and showed how the social workers and doctors made each other’s decisions better.

Then they moved to report the findings of their study. They reported that integration got people back to work faster, reduced long term disability rates, and decreased length of stay in the hospital. When they introduced each of those points, they also stated (not showed) a key metric for each.

Show: They had four slides. Only one was in the main part of the presentation. It simply stated, “Integration between social workers and doctors leads to improved health outcomes.” That title was supported by three simple bullet points.

·     Decreased length of hospital stay

·     Faster return to work

·     Fewer long term disability claims

This slide was just meant as a visual anchor so that the audience could track the argument.

The remaining slides were all in the appendix: hospital stay results, return to work results, and long term disability results. They showed those slides only if someone in the audience asked for more detail.

The important thing is that the main slide didn’t contain any numbers, charts, or graphs. It just had the overall finding with the three simple statements of support. The slide was just meant as a visual to pull the findings together in one place. Some of the details came out as part of the spoken story. The rest were provided in the take-away document.

Support: The leave behind document was a narrative document about the study and its findings. It had a large appendix that provided details on the methodology, specific analyses, and other details.

Creating simple, clear communication requires thinking, planning, and design. It’s about combing the tools that you have available to bring your message to life.

Use your tools intentionally. Each has it’s a unique purpose.

The most important part of your presentation is the story. Start there. Everything else should fall in line to help your audience understand it.


Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author with Avail Advisors. Avail helps leaders simplify their problems, decisions, data, and communication. Contact Brad at

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