Writing with Power(Point)

February 20, 2020 § 9 Comments

A vacuum on a beige carpet, picking up shiny confetti“Hey, let’s go make PowerPoint slides!” said nobody ever. We all became writers to escape the dreary corporate world, right? We’re not wearing ties or pantyhose, we show up on our own schedule, and we certainly don’t make “presentations.”

Unless part of our writing is…teaching. Or giving a TedTalk about our process or a PechaKucha about the topic of our book. Or leading a workshop. Or speaking at conferences. Yes, sadly, there are many opportunities for writers to embrace slides. But just as social media can make us better writers, creating slides lets us practice strong imagery, writing craft, and (of course!) brevity.

After five years of speaking, I’ve learned a few tips and tricks for engaging, informative slides—and writing better prose, too.

Get a good template. Most pre-loaded slide themes are aggressively corporate, with blue gradient triangles and racing stripes galore. Free presentation templates on Canva, Graphic Mama and SlideCarnival include fun, creative themes that still look sleek and professional.

When you’re writing, make sure you’re reading. How are books and essays you admire structured? Can you experiment with someone else’s and your own content? Would a hermit crab or braided essay “template” suit the material you’re working with? Very often, the exercise of shaping our words into a fixed form illuminates connections and highlights important moments.

Show OR Tell. Memoirists can “tell” a bit more than novelists, because the writer’s retrospective voice can express deeper realizations from the actions the past self takes. As Sue Silverman teaches, the “voice of experience” tells the story, and the “voice of innocence” lives it in the past. We still need to show key scenes and allow the reader to experience what we felt at the time, but we can give context and share what it all means to us now.

With slides, avoid reading the text on a slide. Most of your audience can read faster than you can speak, so let them get the gist while you share the larger meaning of your key concepts, and “show” the application and purpose of what you’re teaching with vivid, specific stories. Likewise, go for a fun or unique photo over one that purely illustrates what you’re talking about. I can tell a roomful of writers “Clean up your manuscript with a good copy-edit because typos are distracting to the reader,” but the vacuum sucking up glitter shows that idea more than a marked-up page. We’d all be distracted by glitter on the carpet; we can imagine typos as confetti strewn over our manuscript. Ideas sink in better when the associated image conveys a feeling.

Which brings us back to showing in our writing: when expressing an abstract concept, or a state of being, or family history, or a relationship, use a concrete image:

My aunt used to sit on the blue velour couch and re-sew her underwear for her daughters.

—strong situation, right? But let me expand in an unexpected direction:

We weren’t poor.

Instead, the men in the family controlled the money, and the women made do. Now we have an image, plus the immediate pity, plus outrage at the next discovery. A memorable and emotion-evoking detail on which to build a scene. For great scenes, explore your memory; for great images, check out stock photo sites like Pixabay and Unsplash.

Keep it tight. Here at Brevity, we love your 750-words-or-less essays. But even a 120,000-word fantasy novel or historical fiction should have no wasted words.

In your slides, evaluate each one: do you need it to express a point? Does it follow logically from the previous slide, and lead us to the next one? Does more than one slide express this point? Trim text to the minimum number of words. Bullet points of six words or less; not more than six bullet points on a slide. No more than one slide per minute of total presentation time. Yes, you’ll go through slides faster than a minute each, but that gives time for questions at the end, or to spend more time on complex points.

If you’re trimming down your memoir, make a list of scenes. What “point” does each scene make?

  • This scene with my mom is how I learned my value was based on my appearance
  • This scene with my dad is how I thought alcoholic behavior was “normal”
  • This scene with my ex-boyfriend is about him valuing me only on my appearance…hold up, do I need this? Do I need all of it? Do I need it here?

I’m a weirdo who genuinely enjoys making slides. Even if you don’t join me in this folly, imagine your essay, memoir or novel as a series of static images. What are you watching? What do those images say? What key points should the reader take away? Smooth your transitions from one scene to the next. Weed out duplicates. Trim unnecessary words. And breathe a deep sigh of thankfulness that you’ll never have to try to make Quarter Two’s Sales Numbers memorable.

Like to see these techniques in action? I just added slides for “Beyond Spellcheck: Editing Your Brilliant Next Draft” to my Instagram highlights. It’s meant to be viewed on a phone (it’s sideways), but you can turn your laptop—that’ll be a memorable image, too.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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