The Folly of “Ditching PowerPoint”

Every few weeks, someone speaks out on a public forum somewhere about how bad PowerPoint is. About how it should be eliminated from corporate culture. About how it is the root of all evil. Over on the Presentation Gurus LinkedIn group, one of the regular contributors, Eric Bergman, shared a link to an NPR article entitled “Physicists, Generals and CEOs Agree: Ditch the PowerPoint.”

The article describes how the physicists banned PowerPoint, allowing only a board and a marker. “The use of the PowerPoint slides was acting as a straitjacket to discussion,” said a professor. “We removed the PowerPoint slide, and it was like a big glass barrier was removed between the speaker and the audience.”

The article referenced many of the tenets of Death by PowerPoint that we all know well. Too much text on a slide…speakers turning into drones…audiences tuning out…free exchange of ideas squelched — all were reduced or eliminated thanks to the ban on PowerPoint.

Meanwhile, Eric’s share with the LinkedIn group evoked 68 responses and those responses spawned much debate. I’ll summarize the debate from one exchange in particular:

“A fool with a tool is still a fool. It’s easier to blame the tool than the fool.”

“But when there are that many fools abusing the tool, can we really blame the fools instead of the tool?”

I’ll spare you the more inflammatory, insulting, and bloviating commentary that took place when some held a bit too stridently to their positions — you can read them for yourself. But there is much more to this issue than a simple question of tool vs. fool. I would like to broaden the conversation with three perspectives.

Why does PowerPoint inhibit creative thought?

You can debate the question of accountability all you want and you can choose to blame the tool or the fool. But there can be no debating this: all too often, PowerPoint acts like a barrier, inhibiting a presenter’s ability to share his or her expertise with the audience. Ask anyone who has had to endure a typical 45-minute business presentation, featuring 45 slides, each with an average of 45 words on it.

The irony of this situation is that it is caused by working too hard. Most content creators spend hours creating slides that represent their ideas, trying to find that elusive balance between what they need to display and what they need to provide in printed form. This has Epic Fail written all over it, but most don’t recognize that. They work so hard on their slides, and that requires that they work even harder at presenting with them.

I want you to work softer, not harder. I want you to stop obsessing about your slides. I want you to resist the notion that your slides have to tell your story for you. And for heaven sake, stop creating slides thinking that they can serve both as visuals and as handouts. That’s just a train wreck lying in wait.

Not to suggest that these are easy to do, but changing your attitude and your approach to slide creation can ultimately reduce your workload significantly. It takes time and effort to create such busy slides and then it takes extra effort to work through those slides before an audience. That’s effort that I would rather see you reserve for reflecting on what matters most to your audience and how you can connect with them on deep, meaningful levels.

What constitutes inappropriate use of PowerPoint?

There are people who use PowerPoint incorrectly and there are people using PowerPoint when they shouldn’t. Those are two different things and that is an important distinction.

When people create bad slides because they are bad at PowerPoint, that is a straightforward problem. Their intentions are good and appropriate; their skills are just lacking. They can be helped. They can be trained on better fundamentals and they can become better presentation designers, more efficient slide creators, and ultimately, better presenters.

There is a larger problem in our industry than deficient skills. Hundreds of thousands of people start the presentation creation process by sitting down in front of PowerPoint, staring at title-bullet-bullet-bullet, mouse in hand, and expecting to be able to think creatively.

That is an unrealistic expectation; that is inappropriate use of the tool. This person isn’t just using PowerPoint poorly; he is using PowerPoint when he shouldn’t be. He shouldn’t be staring at a blank PowerPoint slide when he is trying to craft messages and devise compelling story arcs. He should be doodling, scribbling, talking, walking, maybe even napping. All of them would be better than sitting in front of a computer screen and hoping for creativity to spontaneously occur.

Helping that person is both easier and harder than helping the person who simply lacks PowerPoint expertise. “Don’t do that anymore!” seems like such simple advice, but in today’s corporate culture, you are expected to use PowerPoint, not go sit in a lawn chair for 10 minutes, even though the latter would be better for opening your creative canal.

PowerPoint is the place where most of us are going to end up but it’s not the appropriate place to start. Get away from PowerPoint when you are thinking about how to tell your story; get away from the computer altogether! Your computer is not a good tool for creativity. Go just about anywhere else.

What does your own culture say about this?

I hold no illusions that you can enact these changes without resistance. In fact, you might be met with extraordinary resistance based on the part of the world you call home. I recall vividly the 2010 Presentation Summit, when we devoted an hour of group discussion to this topic. One of our patrons that year, Peter Han, traveled to the conference from South Korea and he spoke about the issue of busy slides. “In our country,” he said, “if we create beautiful slides with just a few words on them, we will be accused of being lazy. Our bosses want to see that we have been busy, and the way to do that is to create busy slides.”

I remember feeling such deep sympathy for Peter. That year we had Nancy Duarte discussing the art of the story arc; Garr Reynolds speaking on simplicity of design; Julie Terberg creating live makeovers — and all the while, this kind gentleman from across the Pacific Ocean could consider none of it without jeopardizing his career.

Corporate and international culture are powerful factors in presentation and brings layers of challenge to our jobs as presentation specialists. How do we face these challenges as a professional community? Is it too simplistic to presume that we simply need to produce better results? How would the boss in South Korea respond if Peter’s set of beautifully under-designed slides won them a new contract? Would the boss really accuse Peter of being lazy?

What are the keys to the type of success that can change these deeply-seated attitudes about presentation? Ditching PowerPoint altogether might produce a few short-term gains but is that really the long-term solution here? We all need to become more proficient with PowerPoint and we all stand to benefit from awareness of its alternatives. But the real sea change might begin with our recognizing the right time to turn to it in the first place.


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