It’s Never the Violin

I was on the road all of last week when the New York Times published its article about the Pentagon and its commission of Death by PowerPoint (“We have met the enemy and it is PowerPoint.”)  This is my first opportunity to comment on it, which suggests that my blogging techniques are below subpar if I can’t post from the road. (I know, I’m pathetic.)

What struck me about this whole affair is not so much the article itself. Those of us in the presentation community are used to semi-annual PowerPoint is horrible articles. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, and dozens of online outlets have all written on this subject.

What impressed me the most about this recent article was the reaction. By all of you. At last count, I have received over three dozen emails from friends and colleagues, four postings on my FaceBook wall, a half-dozen text messages, and three requests for interviews from journalists writing follow-up articles.

What was different this time? “It made it to the highest echelons of government,” answered my friend Charlotte. “Even Jon Stewart did a bit about it.” But the first fact isn’t new and the second fact proves my point. This is not the first time that Death by PowerPoint has touched our political leaders. NASA was on the hot seat for poorly-crafted visuals that might have masked the inherent flaws in the Space Shuttle’s tile design. Colin Powell used PowerPoint-derived charts to make his case for war to the United Nations, prompting Newsweek to suggest that a set of slides drove us into Iraq. And when that happened, Jon Stewart did not consider it worthy of a satirical response. This time, he did.

This time, you all did. This time, you all considered this worthy of conversation. Why is that? Why did you all care so much this time? We are experiencing a collective rise in our consciousness about bad presentation design and I see it everywhere I go. My client list has lots of new names on it, our registration numbers are up for this year’s Presentation Summit, and this week on the softball field, my centerfielder asked me about it…and he’s a plumber.

It’s as if we all reached a simultaneous collective saturation point on bad PowerPoint and we’re not going to take it anymore. But why do we treat PowerPoint differently than other software tools that we use? When you write a bad letter, is Microsoft Word to blame? If you crunch numbers poorly, do you curse Excel? That crappy email you just composed…all Outlook’s fault? And what about all of those ridiculous tweets about what you had for breakfast…okay, well, maybe that is Twitter’s fault, but you see where I am headed here.

It is rarely the violin responsible for the performance — it is almost always the violinist. But we hold in different regard our relationship with PowerPoint. We even use it as a generic — “please create a PowerPoint for next week’s sales meeting.” Few tools have permeated our way of thinking as has this one, and perhaps that is because, unlike with Word and Excel, we practice this craft in public. You create slides as part of an extroverted activity and many people bear witness to your success or lack of same with the tool.

And we’ve had it. We all say no mas.

The disconnect continues, however, with our view of the solution. You would consider it foolhardy to take a class in Word in the hopes of becoming a better writer, and would take a similarly dim view of the notion that accomplishment with Excel qualifies you as an accountant. But that is precisely the expectation people have for PowerPoint: they expect that learning it will turn them into good public speakers. No mas.

Your goal as the presenter is to remove all barriers between you and your audience members so you can share your ideas and expertise with them in the most natural and direct way possible. Conventional slides rarely contribute to that pursuit; they usually become a barrier. They usually work against the presenter, and our first impulse is to blame the slides. Connecting with an audience and delivering a compelling message has very little to do with the software you choose. It has everything to do with how prepared you are to speak to the facts, how in tune you are with your audience, and how much passion you bring to the process.

If we could think of that first, before creating slides, there would be no more Death by PowerPoint.

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