Slide inertia

27 March 2023

This is something I’ve noticed, over the years: slides in presentations have inertia. They stick around.

The GDS slide template was famously minimal, but for years, it included this set of coloured rectangles on the right side of every slide.

They were alternative coloured bars, the same size and shape as the blue one at the bottom of every slide. I don’t know who first created them, and put them off to one side in case they came in useful; I do know that those coloured bars got duplicated and duplicated thousands of times. Never used, to my knowledge.

But also: never deleted. Never removed from the organisational brain. Every time someone created a new presentation, there they were.

I’d love to know if they’re still there. I wouldn’t be surprised.

That’s slide inertia right there

Think of the best slides you’ve ever written. You re-use them all the time, right? Of course you do. Everyone does. I’ve got plenty of those.

Everyone’s busy - which I might have mentioned in the past - which means everyone does the obvious thing when they start writing a new presentation: they make a copy of the last one, and edit that.

This is where slide inertia comes from.

Thing is, it’s not confined to just the best slides, or just the most useful slides. Entire presentations get re-used this way, and therefore the inertia applies to all the slides. It’s simply so much easier to read through your newly created duplicate, make a few small tweaks to suit the audience or the occasion, and mutter to yourself: “That’ll do.”

I’m not even moaning about that. It’s true. Most of the time, it’s fine. It will do.

And so the inertia builds.

Your brain grows accustomed to the slides you’re re-using. You know how to time your presentation delivery; you know when to click to move on. You know where the punchlines to the gags work best. You’ve been performing this show for years now. No-one can blame you for sticking to what you know.

Overcome slide inertia by assuming that it’s happening

As the inertia builds, things start to remain in your presentations that maybe shouldn’t remain there.

They might be small or trivial things - they might be different coloured bars to put at the bottom, that cause no harm because they lurk unnoticed in the background. Or, they might be big things: assumptions, dates, numbers, facts, statements of vision or intent, whatever. Things that might not necessarily be wrong, but might very easily be stale.

In my experience, the best way to deal with slide inertia is just to acknowledge and assume that it’s probably happening. Keep it in mind, and try to be a harsher editor of any slides, or whole presentations, that you’ve re-used out of habit.

A more proactive technique is to re-write your presentation from scratch, probably as a set of bullet points, like you’d write any new bad first draft. Focus on that task first, get some feedback, make some edits, until you’re confident that the bullet list reflects what the presentation should actually say.

And only then grab your last presentation and duplicate it. See just how many of those old slides really line up with what needs to be said. Ditch a few, remake some of the older, staler ones.

I don’t think you can avoid slide inertia, particularly in large organisations. But you can at least keep on top of it.