What’s the Point?

Reassessing the Culture of Computer Presentation

PowerPointers everywhere – beware! An alarming trend is picking up steam regarding the use of computer presentation software. From fields as diverse as pharmaceutical research to military sales, more and more senior executives are rethinking the use of PowerPoint – and challenging presenters to go beyond their slides. This trend has a small legion of panicked presenters scrambling to enroll in Public Speaking 101.

Consider the fate of three bewildered clients who approached me this year for speech coaching:

  • A defense contractor was pitching a new security system to a group of high ranking military officers. After clicking off the introductory slide, a one star seated nearby pulled the plug on the projector. “I want you to describe this system in your own words,” he said. “We’ll call for individual slides later.” The contractor’s tongue turned to concrete – and he periodically begged for power to be turned back on. “That’s when I discovered that I’d lost the ability to speak without PowerPoint.”
  • A marketing manager for a Florida-based cleaning service arrived at the headquarters of a hotel firm. She was armed with a projector and 30 carefully manicured slides. Everything was fine – until a brown-out turned the projector into nothing more than a high-tech book end. She thought the show was over, but the hotel executives thought differently. “I just could not speak correctly without my slides. I am totally dependent on them… I hide behind them.”
  • A scientist at a large Boston genetics firm gave a presentation on a gene sequencing project. “It was perfect,” she said. “Colorful, correctly paced, with good sequencing. I thought I used all the right bells and whistles.” But midway through the show, a senior lab director abruptly interrupted her. “She wanted me to present the data streams that backed up each slide. Who cares about data during a presentation?” Evidently, the senior lab director did, and Einstein was sent back to the drawing board.

Let’s back up a bit. The revolution in computer-based presentation began in 1986 with the release of Harvard Graphics. Since then, many similar products arose that enabled users to combine text, graphics, charts, and pictures in a single presentation format. Microsoft’s PowerPoint eventually gained the largest market share, and has since earned the distinction of becoming the signature trademark for this software genre. Yet each of these products follows a familiar format, and all have helped to revolutionize the way business information is disseminated.

These products have even changed the vernacular of business communication. Three decades ago, nearly everyone who addressed an audience would have been called a “speaker.” Today, we are more likely to refer to them as a “presenter.”

Of course, not everyone could be a good public speaker. After all, speaking before a live audience has always ranked as one of the top ten human fears. For that reason, the ability to master verbal communication was once considered the defining attribute of a good leader, whether in business, politics, the military, or among the clergy. From the time that Pericles first addressed the noblemen of Athens to when Abraham Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas, the ability to master an audience was regarded as a sign of character and conviction.

One of the reasons that PowerPoint became so popular is that it enabled even mediocre speakers to become effective communicators. No longer did speakers need to feel so exposed on a stage, with their faults and foibles in plain view. PowerPoint takes the focus off the speaker and places it squarely on an endless variety of visuals – like compelling pictures, handsome graphs, engaging backgrounds, and pleasing colors. In the process, this medium capitalized on the great power of visual culture to seize the attention of an audience.

It is no surprise that the final product presented to an audience is called a PowerPoint “show”, or .PPS. This implies that a certain expectation for entertainment is built into the software. This may be a stretch, but watching a PowerPoint show is somewhat like going to the business theatre.

Unfortunately, the use of this powerful medium has several drawbacks. Because it forces on the listener the same rules that govern all visual media, PowerPoint has a tendency to make an audience complacent. Think of what it’s like to watch a movie in a crowded theater. You laugh, you cry, and you scream pretty much on cue. In other words, you bring your reactions in line with those of your fellow viewers. The same holds true for a concert, a play, or any other medium that is intensely visual.

Members of a typical audience will dare not say “boo” unless they are sure that others will go along with them. But for business leaders, challenging the assertions of an information provider is an important part of making informed decisions. By virtue of its visual seductiveness, PowerPoint gives too much power to the presenter, and too little to the listener.

Another drawback is the tendency of presenters to resort to relentless summary in order to squeeze in information. By now, we have all been indoctrinated in the Golden Rule of Slide Construction – too little information is better than too much. Let’s be honest – we have all groaned when novice presenters put up slides containing more words than the Book of Deuteronomy. A good presentation, so we believe, is big on ideas and short on details.

But what happens when critical information is synthesized in order to fit a slide? NASA was forced to confront this very question when it investigated the most recent space shuttle disaster. In January 2003, the orbiter Columbia suffered damage on liftoff when a piece of foam insulation struck the shuttle’s protective heat tiles. While the spacecraft orbited for 12 days, a team of Boeing engineers was tasked to perform an emergency risk analysis. Predictably, the engineers used PowerPoint to present their findings, and NASA based its decision to allow reentry on that very presentation. The outcome was nothing less than tragic.

Critics who analyzed the presentation concluded that too much valuable information had been summarized, synthesized, or turned into acronyms. They blamed the “culture of power-pitching” that conditions presentation designers to compartmentalize information into tidy, sanitized bullets. In an attempt to make their findings fit the bullets, the presentation designers failed to impress the decision-makers with the potential seriousness of the orbiter’s tile damage.

This led one Washington Post reporter to condemn PowerPoint for reducing “the most complex, subtle, even beautiful ideas into tedious, bullet-pointed bureaucratese.”

The final drawback is one that should truly irk anyone concerned with personal productivity. To put it bluntly, executives spend far too much time dithering over the appearance of their slides. One client who was introducing a trauma prevention program spent nearly three days trying to decide on the background color. What, she wondered, would galvanize the audience more – blood red or gory green?

For me, this begs a simple question – are we entrepreneurs, or are we entertainers?

I am not proposing that business leaders throw the baby out with the bath water. PowerPoint is everything its makers claim it to be – powerful, versatile, and capable of neatly packaging vast quantities of information. Its functionality and relative ease of use cannot be ignored. But it is definitely overused, and it is not applicable for every situation. Business leaders interested in the flow of quality communications between speakers and listeners need to begin to reign in its use.

A few suggestions for the slide-weary CEO:

  1. Turn it off! At the last minute, require a speaker to give an old-fashioned show-and-tell presentation. This won’t win you many friends. But you may be surprised to see how poorly some of your employees or consultants handle themselves when the plug gets pulled. Alternately, you may be shocked to find out how little in-depth knowledge they have about the product, service, or concept they are discussing.
  2. Mix the presentation forums. Following a PowerPoint presentation, insist that the presenter meet face-to-face with a panel of your best experts. This gives your people the opportunity to scrutinize his or her product, service, or concept, away from all those bright lights and pretty colors.
  3. Insist on seeing the numbers. Too many presenters arrive with just a laptop – and not a scrap of data. If the subject matter involves anything even remotely technical, a table should be set up to allow in-depth analysis of the data that backs up each slide. The presenter should be expected to defend any challenges a listener may raise.
  4. Allow for questions at any time. One of the favorite techniques that presenters use to control audiences is to say, “I’ll go through my slides first, and then take any of your questions afterwards.” Presenter 1, Audience 0. People get tired after long presentations, and they may not remember all their questions. Insist on more interactive forums that allow your people to periodically air their questions.
  5. Train better listeners. Many corporations run seminars in the use of PowerPoint. Others provide instruction on how to speak effectively in public. But very few firms actually train their employees to be empowered listeners. There are many consultants (including myself) who specialize in teaching your people how to become better consumers of information. From experience, I have found such people to be more valuable to a company than good presenters.
  6. Establish a company PowerPoint protocol. Several years ago, Pentagon officials put out specific guidelines for computer presentation. They did so to force briefing officers to spend less time developing great slides – and more time developing great briefings. They were also interested in curbing the use of unnecessary PowerPoint features – like wildly zooming pictures and exotic slide transitions. Among other points, a good protocol should mandate the use of a single company template, as well as specifying how information should be arranged on a slide.

I would be remiss if I didn’t finish with a revealing postscript. Last December, my tech-savvy fourth-grader decided to use PowerPoint for his history project. The subject was George Washington’s winter at Valley Forge. The presentation included many engaging graphics, including Leutze’s famous painting of the General leading his troops across an ice-bound river. He spent hours constructing it, and I was delighted when he came home with an A.

Afterwards, I had second thoughts. So I asked him three simple questions: Which one of the thirteen original colonies was Valley Forge located in, in what century did Washington camp there, and what famous river did he forge to surprise the Hessians on Christmas Eve? His answers were, in order: Massachusetts, the 20th Century, and the Charles River.

Next slide?