Words are at the heart of all great presentations.
Since most communicators don't pass their scripts to a professional copy editor before creating their slides, they need guidance.
Three books published this year will help you find the right words--and eliminate the wrong ones.
1. Dreyer's English by Benjamin Dreyer
Benjamin Dreyer is vice president and copy chief at publishing giant, Random House. The New York Times calls Dreyer the 'Guardian of Grammar.' Dreyer's book is substantive, authoritative and very funny ("Cliches should be avoided like the plague").
Chapter 9 is one of my favorites. It's devoted to "Peeves and Crotchets." Crotchets are "words that drive a reasonable person into unreasonable fits of pique, if not paroxysms of rage." The worst offenders on Dreyer's list are words that should be banned from your writing.
Here are a few of Dreyer's peeves that I also hear repeatedly in presentations. Stop using them.
Impactful. "If everyone stopped using it, I bet that no one would miss it," writes Dreyer.
Incentive. "The only thing worse than the ungodly 'incentivize' is its satanic little sibling, incent."
Irregardless. "Wholly unnessary."
Learnings. "Have you no sense of decency? They're lessons."
Literally. "A respectable word that has been distorted into the Intensifier from Hell. No, you did not literally die laughing."
Onboard. "The use of 'onboard' as a verb in place of 'familiarize' or 'integrate' is grotesque."
Reside. "You mean, 'live?'"
Dreyer devotes another chapter to "the trimmables." These are words you should eliminate to make your sentences stronger. Dreyer has many examples of words you can delete (in italics).
For starters, a person doesn't set an all-time record. They set a record. You don't withdraw money from an ATM machine. It's just an ATM. You don't blend together. You just blend. You don't make a closed fist. You make a fist.
Trim your copy to strengthen your presentation.
2. Writing to Persuade by Trish Hall
Trish Hall is the former editor of the New York Times Op-Ed page. She wrote a book intended for any type of writing (email, blogs, opinion letters, even notes to your spouse), Hall's lessons apply to any type of public speaking, too. For example, Hall exposes common writing mistakes that also undermine presentations.
- Covering too much ground. A short written piece shouldn't be too sweeping. Be specific and focus on one or two big ideas. The same applies to a presentation. TED conference organizers advise speakers to choose one specific theme from their body of work and to build their 18-minute presentation around that one topic.
- Writing in generalities. Here, Hall recommends using details that illuminate. If you don't teach your audience anything new, specific or interesting, you've lost an opportunity to persuade.
- Writing complicated sentences. Long, convoluted and confusing sentences are hard to read--and hard to say. "So, prune!"
- Using too much jargon. "No matter how complex, ideas can be made coherent to the general reader. So: Kill the jargon."
Common writing mistakes will weaken a presentation. Avoid them.
3. Working by Robert A. Caro
Caro is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author known for his biographies of Lyndon Johnson and Robert Moses. It takes Caro years to write books because he does his homework first.
Caro has an unusual method of slowing down to think and research. He writes his first drafts in longhand, "the slowest of the various means of committing thoughts to paper." Caro then types the words on a Smith-Corona typewriter which you're more likely to see in a museum than in a writer's office.
When I wrote The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs, I titled a chapter, Plan in Analog. World-class presentation designers don't start by opening slides and filling in the bullet points. They whiteboard, sketch out a narrative, or collect anecdotes and assets that will complement the story.
Slow down. Think it through.
Copy editors spend their career making writing stronger, tighter, and more persuasive. Since almost every presentation is intended to persuade, it's worth taking their advice before building your next pitch.