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Pardon my Distaste

February 1, 2011

By John Munce, Deployment Executive, The Tatham Group

May I be permitted to hate PowerPoint? Hundreds of slide decks–printed, projected, emailed, LiveMeeting-ed, and slide-showed–I still find PowerPoint mind numbing.  Not just the content, though many a snore-inducing session have I endured. It’s the PowerPoint structure itself that grates on my nerves.

I am not alone.  Google gives me 2,050,000 hits for the words “I hate PowerPoint”.  I find my whining well represented.  It dumbs things down!  It treats us like idiots!  It uses too few words!  It uses too many!  It hides the message of the data!  It drowns me in cutesy stick-men graphics! Too many slides make me dizzy!  No one uses complete sentences!  To all of these complaints I say, Amen.

Now a word from the PowerPoint lovers:  Stealing a phrase from the gun control debates, PowerPoint doesn’t kill audiences; presenters kill audiences.  I’ll grant you that.  PowerPoint is a system of tools for presenting and can be used skillfully or clumsily.

I am old school. I think an interactive presentation is best.  Put some markers in my hands, add wall of paper—flipcharts can be so confining—and I believe any thought can be made clear and any discussion can be guided.  I confess I’ve used flipcharts to support a conversation with an audience of one.  I am a presentation troglodyte.  I can no longer live in the flipchart cave.

That I can no longer live in a cave, writing with chalk on the cave wall, does not, however, mean that using the PowerPoint tool automatically makes presentations “professional.”  I’ve had many an argument with a team presenting results of their work.  They fear using flipcharts because “everybody in our company uses PowerPoint” and “flipcharts don’t look professional.”  After they succumb to my demands and present using flipcharts, I will often hear managers say, “Thanks for sparing me another death by PowerPoint.”

A persuasive and interesting presentation is a story.  There is intrigue, surprise, and a climax.  A list of bullet points does not a story make.  When we are forced to use PowerPoint, we still must have the story well-told.  At bottom, my distaste for the tool is really a complaint about poorly thought out presentations.

For now, let me limit my critique to three points.

1. The tool cannot substitute for clear thinking. PowerPoint tends to force a list of bullets plus a cute graphic.  Short statements can force you to distill your thoughts to an essence.  Or they can cover up the thinking.  For a discussion of how the typical PowerPoint structure resembles Soviet-style thinking, try http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/powerpoint

2. Our eyes and ears are being retrained. MTV has retrained us to quick glimpses and fast cuts, reality TV like “Jersey Shore” not withstanding.  I confess that we need images that link to the story to engage people these days.  The deck needs to become a storyboard like is used to develop a move.  The story unfolds with the pictures, not cutesy graphics.  For a discussion of this approach to presentations, try Nancy Duarte on Avoiding PowerPoint Hell from the Wall Street Journal.

3. Never use something that takes their eyes off of yours.  In any smaller setting, be very careful of handing out a deck.  Once given a chance to read ahead, I always did.  An old boss said that when calling on customers, he never used anything that let them look away. For telling a compelling story, in your words and on the page, try http://heathbrothers.com/downloads/MakingPresentationsThatStick.pdf.

Once I was leading a working session on how a large bank needed to approach a very large merger.  We had working groups crammed into a room with the walls covered in paper.  I was writing on large index cards I posted on the wall.  Every participant also wrote on index cards so that we captured all thoughts for all to see.  As I reviewed the work we had completed, one participant spoke up, “Ah, now I see how these cards work.  It’s Amish PowerPoint!”