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In Defense of PowerPoint

PowerPoint on Trial

PowerPoint has a bad rep.

PowerPoint... is evil.

Edward Tufte, Author of The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint

PowerPoint makes us stupid.

General James N. Mattis, U.S. Marine Corp.

PowerPoint could be the most powerful tool on your computer. But it’s not.

Countless innovations fail because their champions use PowerPoint the way Microsoft wants them to, instead of the right way.

Seth Godin, Best-selling Author

'Death by PowerPoint' they cry, through the halls of America's largest corporations.

How does one defend the indefensible?

Here is the plan:

Our bad PowerPoint presentation failures are not the fault of poor, innocent PowerPoint. Instead, our business presentations fail for three fundamental reasons (each user error):

  • Using PowerPoint as if it was a process (it is a tool)
  • Mistakenly preparing for speeches, not 'sit-down' style business presentation updates
  • Focusing our preparation on style, not substance

The Case for the Prosecution

How do they hate thee?

Let me count the ways...

Witness A: Edward Tufte

Edward Tufte identifies key weaknesses of PowerPoint:

  •   Cognitive style.  Presenter-focused, not content or audience focused.
  •   Low resolution. Little info per slide - so more slides are needed. Data graphics are weak: average of 12 numbers per graphic.
  •   Bullets. Bullet lists can show only 3 logical flows: sequence; priority; or membership. Multivariate models with feedback and simultaneity can't be listed. This encourages lazy thinking, generic ideas and ignores critical relationships and assumptions.

In fact Tuft implicates PowerPoint in the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster.

Witness B: Peter Norvig

Additional witnesses have piled on to point out the limitations of:

  •   Overly simplistic business charts
  •   A poor outliner which drives ideas to be arranged in unnecessarily deep hierarchies
  •   Poor typography and chart layout tools
  •   Clip art (!)
  •   Overly rigid enforcement of a linear progression through a narrative
  •   Default templates that are poorly designed and result in uninspired presentations

Bad PowerPoint is hated.

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The Case for the Defense

PowerPoint is a Tool - Not a Process.

PowerPoint is a tool.

Michael: “We’ll ask PowerPoint.”

Oscar: “Michael, this is a presentation tool.”

Michael: “You’re a presentation tool…”.

Michael Scott & Oscar Martinez (The Office, Season 4 – Episode 4, “Money”)

PowerPoint, as a tool, really isn't so bad.

It is basically a blank canvas. The slide paradigm of PowerPoint/Keynote and other presentation tools is a very useful one for business communication. When leveraged properly, the structure inherent in slides is an effective means of communicating ideas. The mixture of text and visuals that PowerPoint is designed to deliver allows us to communicate directly to both visual and non-visual thinkers.

But learning to craft a powerful presentation, and then to successfully present it, is more than filling out a PowerPoint template. And it can be a challenge.

The challenge arises from the multi-disciplinary nature of creating and delivering a great presentation. It demands of us high-level skills across a great breadth of disciplines. Design skills (taste!), storytelling skills, data literacy and numeracy, structured thinking, passion and charisma; to name a few.

To successfully harness this set of disciplines requires a process.

In the SlideHeroes course we teach a 4-step process for creating a presentation:

  •   The WHO: Identify who your audience is (thinking deeply about who really makes decisions, how they make them, how they like to consume information etc.)
  •   The WHY: Determine why you are speaking with your audience. In nearly all cases this is to answer a question the audience has. Your job is to frame this question, and then answer it.
  •   The What: Determine what your answer is to the question your audience has. This is the meat and potatoes of your presentation. This is your compelling, flawlessly constructed argument.
  •   The HOW: Decide how best to communicate and deliver this argument.

We need a process.

We prepare for speeches, not business updates.

The vast majority of PowerPoint presentation how-to books, seminars, and courses focus on the moment we stand-up in front of the crowd and deliver our speech.

The problem with this is that we are usually sitting down.

Garr Reynolds has coined the term 'slideument' to describe what he believes is the unnatural combination of slides and documents.

Slides are slides.

Documents are documents.

They aren't the same thing. Attempts to merge them result in what I call the "slideument" (slide + document = slideument).

Garr Reynolds, Best-selling Author of PresentationZen

This line of reasoning assumes you are designing for a talk. A 'conference room' speech.

How many speeches to 20+ people did you give last year? I am lucky to give one or two (they are fun, but uncommon).

The reality for most non-sales professionals is that the PowerPoint 'presentations' we create and give are usually to small groups of people.

We are not standing up, there is no auditorium. We might have several of these a week (or a day!). They are project updates, report deliverables, investment recommendations, performance evaluations.

They are focused on detail, data, and deep content. Our noses are a foot or two from the presentation. We require high fidelity, not conference style TED Talks.

The context of business meetings (small groups, detail focused) has a profound effect on the style of the presentation we need to give.

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Our preparation is focused on style, not substance

Presentation training materials tend to focus on the delivery of a presentation, not on the content creation.

While advice on how to present is helpful, advice on what to present (and how to create it) is crucial.

Focusing on the moment of the presentation itself misses where the real magic happens: the act of preparing the presentation itself. It is where the thinking is done; where bad ideas are rejected, and good ideas are beaten into a comprehensible structure and narrative that communicates what you are trying to say.

Instead of worrying about what joke to tell, or where to put your hands, instead worry about whether you understand what problem or question you are answering for you audience.

Focus on deeply and directly addressing the question or problem. Move away from broad generalities. Move towards specificity. There is no such thing as a presentation topic. There are problems and answers. Provide answers with tight, logical structure, facts and data (with a little drama and storytelling mixed in). Use presentation tools to help. We offer presentation training.

Closing Arguments: Creating Fantastic PowerPoint Presentations

PowerPoint is a flawed tool.

However, our approaches to identifying the types of presentations we need to be giving and how to develop those presentations are even more deeply flawed.

In fact PowerPoint is a vastly superior paradigm for business communication than Word or other 'document' production tools.

There is no question that PowerPoint has been at least a part of the problem because it has affected a generation.

It should have come with a warning label and a good set of design instructions back in the ’90s

But it is also a cop out to blame PowerPoint — it’s just software, not a method.

Garr Reynolds, author of PresentationZen

Want to create a great presentation? Don't worry about which new presentation tool you need to buy to replace PowerPoint. Instead, focus on:

  •   The power of structure
  •   The art of telling a story
  •   The science of persuading your audience with facts
  •   The harmony of minimalist design, designed to support, not distract
  •   Finally, the drama of your performance

Our goal for SlideHeroes is to make a profound difference in people's ability to create stunningly effective and impactful presentations.

The kinds of presentations we are asked to give everyday.

FREE  Course Trial

Start improving your presentations skills immediately with our free trail of the Decks for Decision Makers course.

I hope you find tremendous value in our content.

To your success!

Michael