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Less is More

The key to a successful business career is brevity

One of the best pieces of career advice I ever encountered came five years ago at an otherwise forgettable business conference in New York. It was one of those events that charge attendees hundreds of dollars to sit in an auditorium and play with their iPhones while some thinkfluencer gives a 40-minute live infomercial about why you should buy his book.

The most memorable part of the conference was a presentation given by former Apple executive and tech evangelist Guy Kawasaki, who was genuinely funny, charismatic and self-deprecating without being cloying. Most presenters rambled about various case studies in an attempt to make some large point about #innovation. Kawasaki did this, too, but his presentation stood out because was short and polished. Nothing he said was extraneous (not even his corny dad jokes), and at the end, he gave the crowd simple advice on how they, too, can give good presentation.

He calls it the 10–20–30 Rule of PowerPoint:

  • Your PowerPoint deck should be no more than 10 slides. People can’t comprehend more than 10 concepts in one meeting, so any more that will be quickly forgotten.
  • Your entire presentation should be no more than 20 minutes long. People can’t focus on a single idea for more than 20 minutes (and probably even less if they’re holding a smartphone). Anything you say after 20 minutes is effectively meaningless, if not counterproductive. If you have an hour to fill, only talk for 20 minutes, and leave the last 40 for a Q&A session.
  • All text should be in a 30-point font (at least). This will prevent you from inundating people with information and having them lose interest. It will also force you to not read your own presentation aloud, which is boring and takes the interest off you, the presenter.

Kawasaki’s larger point was that “less is more,” and we see evidence of that everywhere in the business world.

Spotify became popular by creating the largest library of any company in the streaming music market. But its most popular feature is Spotify Discover, a personalized, 30-track playlist sent to users every Monday morning. Many Spotify users don’t want to wade through the nearly infinite number of songs and artists on the platform. They want to be told what to listen to, and they want it to delivered to them in a condensed form.

Dave Ramsey didn’t become a personal finance luminary for his expert advice on maneuvering financial markets. In fact, his investment advice is heavily derided by financial professionals. What has made him popular among young, indebted Americans, however, is his purposefully simplistic advice on how on how to create a budget and start paying off your debts. He reduces personal finance to seven “baby steps,” and advocates basic strategies such as the envelope method.

In 1995, Sheena Iyengar, business professor at Columbia University and author of The Art of Choosing, demonstrated the power of less in a social experiment. Iyengar set up a booth of various jams in a grocery store. More people stopped by the booth when it had 24 different jams on display, but only 3 percent of those people made a purchase. Fewer people stopped by the display when there were only six samples available, but 30 percent of them actually bought a jar.

And a recent psychological study finds that people who speak quickly don’t communicate more information than those who speak more slowly. Faster talkers transmit less information per word than people who are more deliberate about what they say.

That is, saying a greater number of words in a given period of time doesn’t mean you’re being more substantive — it means you’re wasting your breath.

Five years later, and I’m still subjected to the occasional PowerPoint presentation in which the presenter puts on the slide everything he wants to say, and then reads it to the audience, word for word, as if I somehow landed a job without ever learning how to read.

And I don’t blame the presenters. They have been conditioned to believe a person’s intellect correlates to the sheer amount of information they convey. Maybe sometimes that’s true, but when it comes to truly capturing someone’s attention and persuading them of your point of view, quality beats quantity every time.