The trouble with PowerPoint, part 1

A lot of people really hate PowerPoint.

PowerPoint has been blamed for crimes ranging from boardroom boredom to engineering disasters.  Some believe PowerPoint is inherently nasty and evil, fostering a mode of thinking and communicating that gives the impression of clarity and precision while hiding error and confusion.

Yet, nobody blames Excel for a flawed business plan, misleading sales forecast or an illegible chart.  Is Word responsible for a confusing report or an illiterate press release?

I’ll probably return to this subject in later posts.  For now, here are a couple of observations:

  • PowerPoint is not always appropriate.
  • When it is appropriate, it is almost always used badly.

I will add to the profusion of advice on improving presentations in later posts.  For now, let me entertain you with my thoughts on why PowerPoint is used so badly.

The problem, of course, is with the user of the tool, not the tool itself.  Even though PowerPoint has been accused of seducing users into bad practices, I will assume that you, dear reader, are less pliant than this.

So, here is what’s wrong with PowerPoint users:

1. Users fail to understand the role of PowerPoint in a presentation.

Your PowerPoint “deck” is not a document to be read or convenient notes for the speaker.

I have not been able find a better description for the role of the presentation than the admittedly old-school “visual aid.”  It is an aid to the presenter, and your audience, while you deliver your message.  It is not the message itself; this is your responsibility.  And it is visual, which gives it great power, if used properly.

2. Users fail to focus on the audience.

Many of the problems with presentations can be traced back to this simple failure.  Here are a couple of observations.

No matter how smart you think you are, or how much you know, or how hard you’ve worked on your project, or who you know, or how funny you think you are, the presentation is not about you.  Some people are incapable of understanding this – let’s try again: it’s not about you.

What the presentation is about is getting the audience to do what you want them to do.  Everything else is crap.

3. Users are incapable of editing.

By editing, I mean delete, mostly.

This is not unrelated to the previous point – it’s a matter of ego.  Not all your thoughts and words are golden, or even relevant.  Not every chart is excellent.  Bald repetition is boring.  You don’t want elaborate prose.  Those cute animations and clipart are distracting, if not embarrassing.

Editing ain’t easy.  Good writers will tell you that editing is bloody difficult.  You will need to painfully scrape and chip away, over and over again.  This also takes a lot of time.  Don’t create your presentation on the plane on the way to the meeting, no matter how confident you are.

So there it is, gentle reader: all this trouble with PowerPoint is really you.

Please try to do better in the future.


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