Document or Presentation? How to choose; Issue #401 October 31, 2017

One of the key results from my latest survey on annoying PowerPoint presentations was that too often professionals are presenting a document on the screen as a presentation. This overwhelms the audience, leaving them confused and upset.

Professionals feel they need to include more and more content in their presentations to satisfy the requests of executives and others. In many cases, a document can be used to communicate some or all of the material that is being presented.

In order to help business professionals determine whether a document, a presentation, or some combination of the two is the best way to communicate their message, I have listed below some considerations related to the content and the audience that you should use to make the decision.


Content considerations

How much detail needs to be communicated?

The more detail that needs to be communicated, the more likely it is that a document is the preferred communication method. If the audience needs to review the material, reflect on it, or consult other sources, a document allows for that time, where a presentation does not. In some cases, sending a document in advance of the presentation will give the audience the time they need to prepare properly for the discussions that will happen at the meeting where the key ideas are presented. This is often referred to as a pre-read and is commonly used when it will be a short presentation to an executive or Board level audience. Presenters can also offer additional details after the presentation for those who want to examine certain details. This is often referred to as supplemental information. I explain the different ways to provide additional information outside a presentation in my book GPS for Presentations.

How many key messages need to be communicated?

The more messages that need to be communicated, the more likely it is that a document will be the best communication method. A presentation should stick to a few key messages only, otherwise it becomes overwhelming for the audience. A document can contain many more messages, since the reader can review sections easily and come back to the document a number of times.

Does the content need to be accessible for future review?

If the content will be needed in the future to be referred to, it is likely that a document will work better than a presentation. The slides for a presentation may not give enough information for future viewers to get the detail needed without the presenter there. One option for presenters is to create a document that contains additional detail that the audience or others can refer to later. This can be done as a separate document or you can add hidden detail slides into the file so that those looking at the file later will have the detail they need to understand what was presented.

Would visuals help communicate the messages?

Increasingly, visuals are used to communicate messages instead of tables of numbers or bullet points of long text. This is an improvement because audiences understand the message from the visual quickly. In documents, visuals break up the paragraphs of text on the page. In presentations, visuals are a welcome substitute for long bullet points or spreadsheets on slides. I encourage all professionals to use visuals to communicate, whether it is a document or a presentation. The effective use of visuals would not suggest one method over the other.

Is the content best explained with a demonstration?

If you are communicating information about a product, process, or procedure, a demonstration may be the most effective way to communicate. If this is the case, a presentation will often be better than a document. The demonstration can be live or on video. While video demonstrations can be included in documents through links to the video online, it requires the reader to be connected to the network, click on the link, and watch the whole video. They also don’t have the opportunity to ask questions about the demonstration if they are only watching the video online. In a presentation setting, the demonstration can be customized on the fly to take into account the needs of the audience, which keeps them engaged. A video in a presentation can be stopped and started with the presenter adding commentary and asking questions during or after the video. This makes a presentation the preferred communication method if a demonstration is needed to communicate the message.


Audience considerations

Does the goal/objective of the communication require group discussion?

The goal or objective of the communication plays a significant role in determining the best communication method. If the goal is to simply disseminate information, a document may be the best choice. It does not require discussion between those who read it. If the goal is to evaluate options, discuss next steps, or make a decision, then discussion amongst the group of stakeholders will be beneficial and a presentation would be the best communication method. The presentation does not need to be in person, it can be via conference call.

Is buy-in being sought from multiple groups/people?

If the goal of the communication is to get input and buy-in from multiple groups, a presentation will likely be the best communication method. It is certainly possible to distribute a document and request comments on the content. The benefit of a presentation is that people can build on what others say and discover new options or perspectives through the exchange of ideas. This discovery is not possible when people don’t hear the feedback of others.

Will the audience need an expert to explain the material or answer questions?

If the audience is not well versed in the topic of the communication, they will benefit from a presentation where an expert is available to answer questions or give alternative explanations. While some may consider the complexity of the content the key factor, I think the difference in knowledge level between the audience and that required to understand the content is more important. Some content may not be very complex to an expert, but to an audience who has no understanding of that area, the content will appear to be very complex. When the audience will have to work harder to understand the content, a document will not serve them well since there is no one there to ask questions to. The risk is that the reader will misinterpret the content and arrive at an incorrect understanding.


There is no simple answer to whether a document or a presentation will be the best communication method. It depends on the goal of the communication, the content being communicated, and the audience receiving the communication. As a quick recap or reference, here is a table that summarizes the eight considerations explained above.

Documents, presentations, or a combination of both can be effective methods for communicating in organizations. Use the guidelines above to ensure you select the best method and avoid overwhelming the audience by presenting a document on the screen.


By Dave Paradi

Dave Paradi has over twenty-two years of experience delivering customized training workshops to help business professionals improve their presentations. He has written ten books and over 600 articles on the topic of effective presentations and his ideas have appeared in publications around the world. His focus is on helping corporate professionals visually communicate the messages in their data so they don't overwhelm and confuse executives. Dave is one of fewer than ten people in North America recognized by Microsoft with the Most Valuable Professional Award for his contributions to the Excel, PowerPoint, and Teams communities. His articles and videos on virtual presenting have been viewed over 4.8 million times and liked over 17,000 times on YouTube.