In almost every workshop I deliver, we have to discuss the request from executives to limit the number of slides their staff uses to present. The executives commonly ask that no more than five slides be used when presenting to the management team. In this article I want to explore why this request is made, why the approach usually doesn’t work, and what executives really need.

Let’s first look at why executives make this request for five slides. It could be five, four, or any small number, the reasoning behind it is the same. Executives have seen far too many presentations that are data dumps. The presenter spews forth information that overwhelms the executives. The executives don’t get the key insights they are looking for. They need to solve this problem with staff presentations because it is a waste of their time, it delays decision making, and it takes a huge amount of time for the staff to create these presentations.

The executives figure that if they limit the staff to only a few slides, the staff will narrow down all the information and present only those key insights that the executives need to know. Then they will get focused, action oriented presentations from their staff that enables the executives to make decisions. Sounds like a perfect solution.

Except the staff don’t understand why the slide limit is being imposed. They don’t know what is wrong with their current presentations. They figure it is just a way to reduce the time presentations take, or a paper reduction effort when presentations are printed. So the staff spend time figuring out how to cram twenty slides worth of information onto five slides. They drop the font size down into single digit point sizes. They resize graphs so that they are impossible to see. And they squish diagrams and images into tiny spaces on the slide.

In the mind of the staff, they have done exactly what the executives want. They have reduced the number of slides down to five. When the executives see these presentations, they are horrified, as they should be. These presentations are even worse, because now they can’t possibly read anything on the slides. The request backfired because the executives asked for the wrong thing.

Instead of placing a limit of the number of slides, the executives should ask for a maximum of five actions or insights that should be considered based on the staff’s analysis of the situation. Each action or insight should be backed up by a few key facts and should tie to one of the organization’s overall goals for the year. It could be that they should stay the course in an area that is performing well. It could be that corrective action needs to be taken on an issue that has been identified. It could be that a risk should be mitigated before it causes an issue. Or any number of other actions that the staff has identified that will help the organization reach its goals.

To create these actions and insights, the staff has to go beyond the typical data dump. They have to consider the data in the context of the overall situation, look at interactions between areas, and consider how the action will help a goal be reached. The presentation is no longer focused on the data, but what the data means to the organization. That is what the executives really need to know.

If you are an executive who has placed a slide limit on staff presentations, please consider changing your request. If you ask for actions and insights instead, you will get what you need to make important decisions. If you have been asked to limit the slides in a presentation you are creating, don’t just cram everything onto fewer slides. Step back and focus on the few insights that the executives need to know about and the actions your analysis suggest needs to be taken.