The grammar of text on slides; Issue #293 August 20, 2013

Despite what some commentators say, I don’t believe that we should eliminate all text from every slide. In my workshops I explain that text on slides is necessary and helps the audience in many ways. In this article, I want to talk about the grammar of text on slides. I regularly get questions on this topic, and I have summarized my advice in this article.

Before I start with my thoughts, let me address why this is an important topic. Why should we care about how the text is written? Does it really matter whether some text is sentence case and other is Title Case? Does it matter whether there are periods or not? I believe it does. Because the audience infers meaning from how the text is formatted, and they interpret our words differently depending on how we write them on the slide. As a presenter, we want our message to be as clear as possible, which includes making the words on a slide mean exactly what we want the audience to understand.

I will start with the headline at the top of the slide. Many people refer to this as the title since PowerPoint uses a Title placeholder for this text. I think defining the text at the top of the slide as a headline that summarizes the point you want the audience to understand is key to how we format this text. As a headline statement, it is more like a sentence, so I think we should write it using sentence case, with only the first word and proper nouns being capitalized, instead of Title Case, where every word is capitalized. The headline is not a full sentence, so there should not be a period at the end. A well written headline helps the audience quickly understand the point of the slide and it helps the presenter know the single point they need to make to the audience on this slide. One of my clients in the financial services industry recently commented that by using headlines instead of titles, their presentation was clearer for the audience and easier to deliver.

I probably get more questions about how to format bullet points than I do about any other text on a slide. I want to start by addressing whether text points on a slide need a bullet point or not. A bullet point indicates a hierarchical relationship, with each level of bullet points breaking down the higher level point above it. In many slides I see, there is no hierarchical relationship in the list of points. In this case, I suggest you remove the bullet point character and use a simple list of text points. Use extra line spacing after each point to make the points properly separated on the slide. If you are using bullet points, use a filled bullet character that has enough presence to be seen and will indicate to the audience where each point starts.

When formatting points on a slide, make sure the indentation is correct. For bullet points, the bullet character should sit to the left of the text with the lines of text starting at the same spot on each line. Using the default bullet point content placeholder sets this up for you automatically. If you are creating bullet points in a text box, set the hanging indent properly in the ruler. If you are not using bullet points, each text point should be left aligned and start in the same spot on each line. If you have removed the bullet formatting from the default content placeholder, you will need to correct the hanging indent in the ruler to properly align the text points. I show you how to format text in PowerPoint in this video.

The final tip about text or bullet points on a slide is to remember that they are supposed to be brief points to give the audience context for what you are about to say. Text or bullet points are not supposed to be a transcript of what you will say, so they should not be formatted like the sentences in a report. There should be no period at the end of a text or bullet point because it is not a proper sentence. The points should be written using sentence case instead of Title Case because they are not titles.

The last type of text I want to address is a quotation. When you are quoting an expert, historical figure, or other person, make sure you use quotation marks around the entire quote. This indicates to the audience what the person said and separates it from any other text on the slide. When using a quote, include the entire text of what they said or wrote, even if it is long. Audiences no longer accept shortening a quote by using the three dots (…) to indicate that you have removed some of the quote. Audiences have seen too many quotes twisted by the media to mean something totally different than what the speaker or writer actually said. If there are a few words that you want the audience to focus on in the quote, use the text highlighting technique I show in this video to make those words stand out.

As I said at the start of this article, I think text plays an important role in our slides. Use the tips I have provided here to help format the text so it is easy for the audience to interpret your message correctly.