The limitations of presentation rules (e.g. 10–20–30) and how to define the level of detail in your

One of the areas that I see my clients struggle with time and time again is the level of detail. How much detail should they put into their sales pitch, keynote, webinar, or reporting presentation? Some of you may have heard of the 10–20–30 rule (10 slides, 20 minutes, 30 sized font) that Guy Kawasaki coined about 15 years ago. It is a great guideline, but it is limiting because it really only applies to one type of presentation, and we’ll get to that in a moment.

After working on hundreds of presentations over the past decade I believe I have found a guide to the level of detail for the majority of situations. It comes down to 3 critical audience factors that make all the difference:

1. The Forum — What is the size of the audience? Where it is being displayed, an auditorium, or a meeting room?

2. The level of audience interaction — Can the audience ask questions at any point, only at the end, or not at all?

3. The outcome — Does the audience need to make a decision? Should they be motivated or inspired? Or is the presentation just for information?

Together these factors give us 3 types of presentations:

  1. The Ballroom

  2. The Conference Room

  3. The Discussion Document

The Ballroom

The first thing that comes to mind for a Ballroom type is a keynote, which has a large audience and minimal if not 0 audience interaction within the talk. The focus is the speaker and the slides are there to support the message. The audience should not be spending time reading the slides playing catchup to the speaker.

Generally, the outcome will be the audience walking away motivated or inspired. In the case of an Apple keynote, it might be developers or journalists that will enthusiastically write about the new products.

Because of the lack of audience interaction, the slides need to be punchy and vivid. After every 5–10 minutes, the speaker must capture the audience’s attention again.

This is the type of presentation where the aforementioned 10–20–30 rule would apply, but only in certain cases. Sometimes it’s better to have more slides than to force-fit a certain number. We’ll talk about this in more detail in a few weeks.

The slides below are good examples of a ballroom type slide. A strong visual and a few bullets that support the core messages the speaker wants to get across. A very simple headline tells the audience where they are, while a few words support the image. Sometimes even animation is appropriate to guide the audience. In my experience, 90% of webinars (despite not being in a physical ballroom), should fall into this category.

This was a keynote for one of my clients. By using a very powerful image, and animated text, the audience was more easily able to retain the message.

The Conference Room

This is a typical business presentation, sales, or investors pitch. The audience tends to be smaller, anywhere in the range of a few to a dozen people. The focus is on the slides as well as the speaker, as the audience is there to understand the product/service/solution and may be less interested in the specific person delivering the message. Generally, the outcome will be or lead to a decision.

One question that often arises with sales presentations is how to manage the level of detail as text needs to be limited, but sometimes client questions require further detail. E.g. a sales presentation to the CMO and the CIO is in the room.

A great rule of thumb is to tailor the presentation to the decision-maker and place the detailed slides in the appendix. When a detailed question arises, jump to the slides in the appendix to explain the points and then return to the body.

The detailed appendix can also be sent afterward for client review. What is critical is to reference the appendix material in the main presentation and ensure that the appendix is well organized. Sometimes it is incorrectly used as a dumping ground for junk slides and random graphs without explanations.

The slide below demonstrates what the audience would want to see in a conference room presentation. Even though the audience is small, we still do not want them to read the entire time. The aim is for the slides to support the speaker with additional detail and/or build credibility through facts and figures. A one-line heading describes the main message of the slide, while the body is a graph or simple analysis supported by some high-level comments (sometimes it will be only text with icons or visuals).

The Discussion Document

This is a special category of a slide presentation that differentiates itself from the Conference Room presentation simply by the fact that it is sent ahead, i.e. is meant to be read before the meeting. This type of presentation is most common in a corporate environment and can occasionally be seen in sales.

The critical aspect here is the action of reading beforehand. Because the presentation is now a document, the level of detail can be much greater. Every slide must be self-explanatory as no one is available to explain it to the audience at the time they are reading it. Therefore, the slides play a role that is greater than the speaker. Sometimes decisions are even made based on the slides themselves and without the need for the presenter to even go into the room.

When the speaker does come into the room, the dynamic is different from the other presentation types in that the audience is already familiar with the content and therefore the presentation is now a discussion. After a short intro, the CEO or customer might say jump to slide 43, and the speaker must do so without skipping a beat. The surprising thing about a Discussion Document is that again, the audience is not expected to read the slides, despite them having a lot of detail. Because they have pre-read the document, they just follow the speaker and discuss questions and insights.

Strategic consultancies like McKinsey produce best-practice Discussion Documents (although the quality of their decks has declined over the past 10 years, and they appear to favor “looking cool” over clarity). Here is an example. A graph demonstrating the main message is supported by comments that further explain in more detail.

This particular example is from 2010, and although the design might be a bit dated, it is an excellent slide. It has everything the audience needs to fully understand the message quickly.

  1. A clear headline that states what is going on and a tracker (recent context) help the audience orient themselves in a longer presentation.

  2. A graph that supports that message with all necessary detail. An explanation of the graph ensures audience comprehension of the analysis.

  3. Further details that are less essential, but need to be stated are covered in the footnotes. Sometimes it is nice to gray out the footnotes so they are not so prominent in the slide.

  4. The source is clearly cited. This is especially important when numbers differ, e.g. finance vs. sales, or in legal/regulatory documents.

Mostly the text size is the same throughout the graph and the comments, which is great, but to make them slide even easier to digest, the category labels (Net profit/loss, Key drivers) should also be the same size as the text. Consistent text size makes it easy on the eyes.


One of the most important aspects of making any presentation is the level of detail that is appropriate. Consider the 3 audience factors and decide what type of presentation you are going to produce, and make sure the level of detail is appropriate.

Audience factors:

1. The Forum — What is the size of the audience? Where it is being displayed, an auditorium, or a meeting room?

2. The level of audience interaction — Can the audience as questions at any point, only at the end, or not at all?

3. The outcome — Does the audience need to make a decision? Should they be motivated or inspired? Or is the presentation just for information?

3 basic types of presentations

1. The Ballroom (keynotes, webinars)

2. The Conference Room (corporate, live sales, pitch decks)

3. The Discussion Document (pre-read or sending ahead/after)

Now let’s get to producing those slides!

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