Tuesday, April 27, 2010

PowerPoint is the Enemy

I went to Starbucks about an hour ago to treat myself to a mocha (even though it was nonfat). And while waiting for my coffee to arrive I noticed the front page of The New York Times. Right smack in the middle of the page was a horrendous PowerPoint slide and the title of the article underneath read "We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint".

Even though I knew I could get the story online when I got home, I just had to buy the paper and read it immediately.

I'm a huge believer in the concept of "death by PowerPoint". There certainly have been a multitude of presentations that I have suffered through that nearly killed me! I follow and attempt to learn from the presentation methods of Garr Reynolds, Nancy Duarte, Seth Godin and others who are out there promoting more effective ways to deliver presentations. While this article's title may paint with broader strokes than I would by saying "PowerPoint is the enemy", I mostly agree with the sentiment. PowerPoint itself may not the enemy, but surely the way it is commonly used is close to a criminal act.

Just look at that slide the article displays! Could you ever make any sense of that thing? It was shown to the General leading the American and NATO forces in Afghanistan last summer and he was quoted as saying, "When we understand that slide, we'll have won the war." Other high ranking military officers said things like "PowerPoint makes us stupid" and "It's dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control." One General even went so far as to ban the use of PowerPoint presentations!

In my experience, PowerPoint presentations have replaced meaningful documents (like white papers) and are used in an attempt to distill all the knowledge deemed pertinent on a topic into a few bullet points. The hope is that a busy person (i.e. usually an executive) can "get the idea" of what is being conveyed without having to spend much time reading something more detailed. But, the supposedly concise presentations I see most often have entire slides filled with sentences (all preceded by the infamous bullet point) that are so busily annoying that I can barely stand to look at them. A presenter is really not even a necessary component of the presentation anymore as most people intend for their slide decks to stand alone and tell the story without need for a person to deliver the message verbally. When these presentations are delivered, they are (more often than not) simply read by the presenter. On top of that, many presentations are not verbally delivered by those directly responsible for the content, but instead are delivered by a high level manager who only shows up on the day of the big presentation to lead the show. I don't know...that just seems odd to me. I'm not going to say there are no merits at all to this use of the tool and this particular approach, but I do find that what is delivered is rarely what I personally want to see/hear.

The article states that military commanders say that "slides impart less information than a five-page paper can hold, and that they relieve the briefer of the need to polish writing to convey an analytic, persuasive point." The technical presentations I see suffer from this in that they are not very polished nor persuasive. But even a "bad paper" that makes an attempt to provide detailed information on a topic is better than being bored to death with a slide presentation that either puts too much or too little meaningful content in front of me. But, the fact that the use of PowerPoint has become so commonplace, it is rare to ever get a detailed paper...you only get the slides. And even if you do get a paper, it is often full of grammatical issues and seems to have been written after the slides such that the paper doesn't offer that much more information but only slightly lengthens the bullet points from the slides.

There are a lot of people out there trying to change the way PowerPoint is used. They work to show that presentations can be used to support the speaker and the topic effectively. I think that most of these advocates separate presentation design and use from documents providing detailed information. I just wish there was a faster way to affect change in this area!

What happened to the days of speakers standing alone in front of the crowd? When was the last time you attended a session that didn't use PowerPoint? Maybe we all need to ban the use of PowerPoint (and all presentation software) for a while and return to a more simple way of sharing our message. Perhaps instead of propagating the use of PowerPoint, organizations could start hosting Toastmasters meetings and teach people how to become more effective speakers.

As I said earlier, I don't think it's necessarily the software that's the problem. But, it's sure an easy target on which to place the blame for the sad situation we find ourselves in every time we are forced to sit through another agonizingly boring presentation.