The Uses of PowerPoint

There’s a lot of stuff about PowerPoint out there, ranging from thoughtful, constructive tutorials to passionate pleas for outright banishment. But PowerPoint is used in a lot of different ways. Sometimes, advice or criticism may be inappropriate for your particular presentation scenario.

Examples are easy:  strategy and technique for a motivational “ballroom” presentation are different than for a sales pitch. And the sales pitch differs from a technical, fact-finding report. The approach will vary depending on the audience, objectives and venue. And there are situations where PowerPoint is not a good idea.

As a contractor/consultant, I have created PowerPoint “decks” for a lot of different situations, including conventional business “boardroom” (or conference room) presentations. I have also used PowerPoint for “applications” that are not conventional presentations at all.

To suggest some of the variability in PowerPoint applications, here are some common scenarios. You can probably think of others.

I’m inspired in part by Speaking PowerPoint – the New Language of Business by Bruce R. Gabrielle (2010, Insights Publishing).  Gabrielle focuses on the internal corporate pitch and contrasts “boardroom” and “ballroom” presentations. Gabrielle also references an interesting paper by Susan Kaplan studying strategy-making inside one organization, using PowerPoint as a collaborative tool. Kaplan says “Results from a genre analysis of PowerPoint use suggest that it should not be characterized simply as effective or ineffective as current PowerPoint controversies do.”.

External business presentations

The first group includes many of the common business situations where your company is presenting to someone outside your company. The venue is usually a boardroom/conference room or a web meeting. The audience is usually relatively small.  Interruptions and discussions are expected and supporting documentation (handouts) is required.

  • Sales (early stage) – the first (or at least early) presentation to a prospective customer, usually an executive. In most situations, the goal is not actually to make a sale but to get a buy-in to the next step in the sales cycle.
  • Sales (later stage) – a follow-up presentation to a prospect and/or his subject-matter experts. The objective is to inform about details of products/services and to overcome objections, or to make a specific proposal. Detailed support documentation is important.
  • “Seminar”/webinar – the audience is usually individual prospects (often specifically invited). One or more “marquee customers” may present/participate. The objective is to gain further interaction with prospects. The venue may be a tradeshow/conference or the web. A formal Q/A session is usually provided rather than free discussion.
  • Investor pitch – the audience is a potential investor in your company; the objective is to gain buy-in to further discussions and due diligence. The potential investor may be impatient and place restrictions on time and number of slides. Obviously, a complete business plan is expected.
  • Analyst briefing – the audience represents a person or organization that is influential in your market and may recommend you to prospects. The objective is to impress and gain recommendation. The audience is knowledgeable and may be skeptical.
  • Partner briefing – the audience represents a potential partner to your organization; the objective is to impress and gain further discussion.

Some observations about this group: first, there are a lot of slides that are common to each type. (corporate overview, value proposition, etc.)  Second, these are all basically sales presentations.

Warning: some web meeting/sharing environments do not support some PowerPoint features; e.g., animation and on-screen navigation.  Test your presentation ahead of time to avoid embarassment.

Trade Show and Conference Presentations

Tradeshows and business conferences provide opportunities for presentations to potential customers, partners, investors and competitors. In addition to the kinds of presentations outlined above, two scenarios are common:

  • Conference track session – This is a “thought leadership’ opportunity where your company has been invited to present on a subject important to your industry or your potential customers. The goal is to present your company as a trusted authority in the market.
    Subject matter is often set by the conference organizers; overt sales/marketing content may be forbidden.  Interruptions are usually not expected; a specific “Q and A” period will follow the presentation.
  • Ballroom – An invited presentation to a large audience; the goal may be to motivate, inform and/or sway the audience. The speaker is important and/or skilled in presenting. High “production values” are usually expected.

Internal Business Presentations

Many organizations use PowerPoint presentations for nearly every internal meeting; thousands of such presentations are given daily. I will list a few situations here; I’ve probably missed some.

  • Internal pitch – the goal of this presentation is to gain approval/funding for a project or other activity. The audience is your boss and other decision makers. This is a form of sales pitch but the audience may not tolerate an overt sales approach.
  • Report on activity – this is a common “progress report” on a project, campaign or other activity. The audience is management and peers; the goal is clarity (although persuasion may be called for).
  • Report on research – reporting on information gathering and analysis, relating to strategy, development or other business activity. This may be combined with a pitch if you are recommending a particular course of action.  Content is usually detailed; clarity is key.
  • Training – this may be an informal update on product features or a detailed technical training session. The audience is usually your peers but may include decision makers; the audience is often well-motivated. Again, clarity is essential.
    Specialized training features are available as adjunct software for PowerPoint.

The audience for these scenarios (except training) may be your board of directors, an executive committee or other high-level decision makers. Obviously, the stakes are higher in these situations and will require more intense preparation.


PowerPoint is often used in business as a vehicle for collaboration – a group developing a plan or strategy uses a PowerPoint file as a repository for notes, data, images, sketches, diagrams, graphs, etc., used during the development process. Meetings center on the file as additions and changes are made. The file is shared and managed as a record of the development process. A formal presentation (probably an internal pitch for approval) usually results from the process but the file itself is more informal. PowerPoint Review tools or other sharing protocols may be used.  See Kaplan for a detailed analysis of PowerPoint in strategy development.

I think the reason for this type of usage is that PowerPoint is widely available and understood, to some degree at least, by most persons in business. As a “scrapbook,” PowerPoint makes it easy to create, collect, delete and organize (and re-organize) text, images, spreadsheets in a file. Its “style” may be conducive to freer, less constrained thinking than a document or spreadsheet.

Applications without a Presenter

Some applications of PowerPoint do not involve a presenter; the presentation “runs” automatically or under control of the viewer. Usually, the presentation is in a video format, converted from the PowerPoint presentation. Occasionally, PowerPoint is used in “show” mode.

Obviously, guidelines for legibility and content change for this kind of presentation compared to the typical boardroom scenario. Since there is no presenter, the presentation must carry the message, although the message is usually concise and the duration is short.

  • Web/kiosk interactive – usually presented on a small screen to a single viewer.  The viewer navigates through the presentation and may interact in other ways.  The presentation may use an audio/narrative track.  With adjunct software, data (e.g., viewer contact info) may be collected. Usually, this is a short sales pitch with the goal of qualifying and gaining further interaction with the viewer; although it may be informative or tutorial.

Warning: If you use video conversion software, you will need to assure that the software and the web environment supports navigation or other interactions.

  • Web/kiosk video (non-interactive) – as above, without interaction. Venues like your web site, YouTube and SlideShare are typical.  In a kiosk/tradeshow situation, the presentation may run continually.
  • Tradeshow booth display – Using a large video screen, this type of presentation runs continually and typically makes use of animation effects.  Since a viewer will typically see only a few seconds of the presentation, it is organized as a series of short vignettes. Audio may include music;  narration would probably be lost in the noise of the show.

Non-Business Environments

PowerPoint presentations are used in schools, law courts and religious institutions.  Motivational presentations are given for a variety of organizations. I have no direct experience in these areas but it is clear that the audience, the venue and the presentation objectives will vary widely.

It is worth noting that a lot of the complaints I see about PowerPoint originate with college students. Faculties may not be doing a good job with PowerPoint.

PowerPoint as a Graphics Tool

Occasionally, a graphic object that I have created for a corporate presentation will also be used on the company website or in sales collateral. I have also used PowerPoint to create web/collateral graphics, posters, trade show booth graphics and similar items “from scratch.” Objects are usually converted to “pictures” (image files like jpg or png) for these applications.

PowerPoint is not a powerful (e.g., high-priced) graphics tool but it does have the advantage of being widely available and understood, to some degree, by a lot of people. I have found that, with a little imagination, I can create acceptable graphics material that has the advantage that it can be edited by my clients without special software or skills.


One of the cardinal rules about presentation design is “a presentation is not a document.”  But what about making documents with PowerPoint?

PowerPoint lacks chaining text from block to block and some other useful features. And PowerPoint will not create output formats that are expected by some printing companies. However, I find it easier to use than Word, when there are a lot of graphics. Short documents (collateral, handouts, etc.) are relatively easy with PowerPoint.

I recently met a marketing person for a start-up company – she had created a new set of marketing/sales collateral for the company. She used PowerPoint.

Hints: use Portrait mode and use several Guides to help layout text and images.  Create pdf output.

The Moral

PowerPoint is used for a lot of things; presentations vary widely in audience, objectives and venues.  Understand the context before you give or accept advice.

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