PowerPoint’s Evil Influence


In June, UPI reported that a Massachusetts woman blamed her GPS device for leading her into a golf course sand trap. Is this like blaming PowerPoint for poor presentations? Does GPS, like PowerPoint, “make us dumb?”

Of course, ignoring your good sense and blindly following the lead of a piece of technology is the dumb part. Or, driving while drunk out of your mind as was the case with the woman in the bunker.

Some do claim PowerPoint is, in fact, an evil force driving its poor users to create execrable slide “decks” that figuratively murder their audiences.

However, I’m really not convinced that PowerPoint drives users to create text-heavy, boring presentations. It is true that PowerPoint seems to have a bias towards text and bullet points (see my earlier post about disarming PowerPoint).  But I don’t think this is the problem.

I think the real “evil influence” is that 98% of the PowerPoint presentations you (or your boss) have seen are simply crap. And, as a result, you are expected to produce similar crap and encouraged to avoid anything else that might somehow risk offending the delicate sensibilities of your management, customers or investors. That’s what drove you into the bunker.

How do I get to 98%?  I have searched the net for presentation examples for this blog and other purposes and I am overwhelmed by overcrowded slides, unending text blocks, bullets, bad clipart, amateurish color schemes, distorted photos, illegible screenshots and Excel tables, inexplicable diagrams, and all the rest. Try it.

Is this a fair sample?  Of course, it is possible to design a presentation for the web, intended for perusal by a single person, without a presenter, using a personal device (laptop). The rules are different when there is no presenter and the presentation itself has to carry the message. So, one could say that a sample from presentations published on the web does not represent the presentations that are actually used in meeting scenarios.

I don’t buy this. The vast majority of presentation creators are simply unaware of these fine distinctions that arise from actually considering the audience. So I’m pretty confident that these are the presentations that are actually used in meeting scenarios. And they are overwhelmingly crap.

So, you are expected to produce bad presentations, and it may not be worth the career risk to do better. Is there any way out?

Well, maybe.  Good advice is available – there are dozens of gurus writing books, hosting websites and blogging about better presentations. Generally, these are useful and even inspiring resources. But, of course, you must understand your specific challenges and audiences and interpret this advice accordingly. Techniques that are good for motivational speakers may not apply to a crusty investor who primarily wants facts. And don’t blindly follow simple “rules;” this can lead to the bunker.

There is some science (at least experimental results) that supports a lot of this advice – cognitive load theory, studies of attention and retention, etc. Unfortunately, most of this material is from educational fields; I’m not sure that college students are good stand-ins for the typical business presentation audience. However, understanding how your audience processes your presentation will help convince you that this advice is usually well-founded.

And convincing yourself is not enough – you will have to get support from your bosses, colleagues and that hide-bound marketing department. This is a real challenge and risk – maybe you should invite an expert to help. Or just make yourself comfortable in the bunker with millions of others.

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