Wednesday, April 28, 2010

PowerPoint: What's the point?

We came across this article on the proliferation of PowerPoint (currently the most popular read on, and it got us thinking: are these mind-dumbing slides more effective than traditional speeches or low-tech talks? Do they really help presenters drive home a message and/or persuade an audience?  We asked our writers to share their thoughts and experiences with PP, and below are a few of the responses we got.  If you've got  an opinion to add, please chime in.
This is a terrific piece.  I admit to harboring extreme prejudice about PowerPoint – it's a communication tool for people who haven’t learned to communicate properly.  Or it’s a classroom tool – but most of the world is not, narrowly speaking, a classroom.
     -- Heather Hurlburt, executive director at National Security Network
At KNP, we make it our business to rail against power point frequently, though our complaints are somewhat different from those in the article.  Our favorite is the "Move the Period" method of powerpoint creation, where the presenter writes out everything they want to say, and then moves the period from the end of each sentence to the beginning and rechristens is a "bullet point."  The author then reads the presentation to the audience, who read each slide for themselves when it comes up and then attend to their blackberries while the presenter catches up.  We teach clients how to present with powerpoint, because they will be expected to, but we often teach it without using powerpoint ourselves.  That's not to say slides can't be used well, they absolutely can.  Powerpoint just doesn't encourage the most effective strategies.  
     -- John Neffinger, partner at KNP Communications
To avoid insulting or condescending to your audience, your PowerPoint must complement and supplement -- never repeat -- the words coming out of your mouth. It should never take the focus from you for more than a moment. Dare to be minimal.
     -- Alan Perlman, communications consultant in Highland Park, IL
In school (pre-PowerPoint), I learned that a good outline contains complete sentences.  In fact, you could get the essence of a completed paper by looking at its outline. Have you ever seen a PowerPoint presentation whose slides you could decipher without the help of a voiceover? The decks I have seen are full of arrows, boxes, clouds, stock illustrations, pie charts, graphs and bullet points. They are full of distractions and template tricks. They have everything except a coherent story. You certainly need more than fifteen seconds to take in any given slide's message, and yet the presenter rarely keeps to a slide longer than that. I've often thought that if the slide were kept up long enough to study, the audience would see it was devoid of any fleshed-out thinking. Maybe devoid of any real content.
     -- Barbara Finkelstein, producer of Bookpod [], a weekly podcast about writers
"Hypnotizing chickens" -- that made me laugh.
     -- John Herr, speechwriter in Washington, D.C.


JR Branson said...

As a speechwriter, I try over and over to explain that every form of communication is merely a tool that helps you reach your goal...don't speak because you can, don't PowerPoint because it's there. You should decide what your communications goal is and then pick the right tool to help you send that message.

I worked at the Pentagon, during which time I volunteered to be deployed to Baton Rouge for the Katrina disaster...even in those rough, bare accommodations, the gov't managed to ensure that Power Point was with thumb drives and the phones didn't work very often or very well, but by God we had PowerPoint!

One time I was headed to my home away from home for the evening and it had been a very long day...on my way out, I asked the USCG rep there what he was doing so late...he said PP slides for the POTUS...I saw that he had about 30-40 slides and was still going! I stayed to help him cull down to 7 or 8 (though I had begged him to go to 3-5) and explained that the others could be used if they were asked about those subjects.

On another briefing by General Honore to a group of visiting Senators, he barely got through maybe a dozen slides before he was interrupted with questions and had to fast forward through them.

The way PP slides are used bogs down conversation, takes eyes and concentration away from the speaker, and confounds the audience.

Now as I consult on speeches, I find that many CEOs tell their staffs that they prefer slides to prepared remarks. On the two occasions I weaseled my way in with a CEO with that attitude, I found that my suspicions were correct: CEOs use slides as a crutch. With the right speech -- specifically, the right speech format and prep -- I can wean them away from slides.

Yes, that was a plug for my services, but a very sincere one!

Natalie Canavor said...

As someone who writes about business writing, I believe the core problem with PowerPoint is that it short-circuits the entire thinking process.

The whole effort focuses on jamming material into a narrow format and at best, finding some graphics to go with it. But slides are only suited to topic headings and perhaps conclusions, not logical progressions of reason or subtle, complicated ideas.

When all the effort goes into the medium, presenters tend never to spend time developing their subject and making productive connections. As a result they only know what's in the deck and end up reading it aloud. This produces a terrible presentation and a a lousy Q&A on top of it.

I've found that the PP approach dominates a lot of high-end consulting businesses today. Firms are requiring that basic communication with both clients and staff be done via PP, and discouaging the use of "primitive" media like Word.

Even scarier, business and MBA programs are training students to use PP as their main communication medium. So we're doomed to see more and more of it, rather than less.

The idea that the military depends on PP to communicate is flabbergasting. Maybe the attention this article is generating will stem the tide... just a bit.

Voices said...

I read the recent NY Times article on PowerPoint, and as a college communications instructor who requires students to do PowerPoints - one of the main things I teach is that one must work on the script/content of the presentation before the graphics.

Because if you do the graphics first, you'll get carried away and
Focus more on the design than content. Because humans process pictures
60,000 times faster than text, visuals should be limited when complementing text.

Further, I think military members mentioned in the article are likely having challenges with PowerPoint because they are not following some basic PowerPoint guidelines:

1) No more than 40 words per page
2) Graphics/pictures shouldn't be too busy (that map they showed in
The NY Times article - was very busy and overwhelming)
3) Text or graphics shouldn't overcrowd the page.
4) One idea/concept per page.

Otherwise, PowerPoint is a great tool. It can give bite-sized
Information and combine audio, video, and text content in order to clearly communicate a message.

- Devika Koppikar, K Communications Strategies, LLC.

Unknown said...

I don't rule out PowerPoint, but I have a very simple rule about it: "The only things that should appear on a PowerPoint are things you can't say in a speech."
A good graphic, a film clip, a clever design...But no outlines or paragraphs!