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Should You Ban PowerPoint?

Death-by-powerpoint“Ban PowerPoint from our meetings.”

Oy, the number of times I’ve heard this phrase working on-site at my clients.

On one hand, it is understandable but clichéd. On the other, it’s pointing the finger at the symptom, not the underlying problem.

The reasons why PowerPoint is badly used are endless.

PowerPoint is a perfect example of the Snowball Effect: one bad effect followed by more and more, multiplying in size until it’s too late.

It starts with a dull opening slide with a generic stock photo as background, moving directly to an agenda slide. The presentation continues with slides packed to the edges with too much detail, if not largely incomprehensible with mouse-sized fonts and overly detailed charts. This goes on for many slides, matched by the presenter’s monotone style with diminishing volume.

(A friend said once wildly in-depth slides are like reading a James Joyce novel. You know it’s intelligent, but you have to spend way too much time re-reading each page to get the point.)

Other issues compound the confusion. A vague objective at the start. A free-for-all Q&A with pedantic and tangential discussions. The meeting ends with slow decision-making and follow-up, if at all.

So what’s the poor solution? Ban PowerPoint!

To be honest, this is non-sensical for two basic reasons:At one client recently, it was decided PowerPoint was the obvious culprit. Depending upon the department supervisor, the knee-jerk reaction was two non-sensical options:

  1. Limit the recommendation, hypothesis or argument to one slide only.
  2. Boycott PowerPoint altogether.

The second edict was particularly interesting because, without PowerPoint, team members had to resort to other methods to convey their points, usually on ‘boards’– e.g., presentation boards, white boards and storyboards – which (ahem) are nothing more than PowerPoint slides without electricity.

It seems like executives decide the problem is the tool, not the presenter. This strikes me as blaming the clubs when the golfer can’t hit a hole-in-one. I also dislike the signal it sends. How you present information is more important that what information you present. In other words, format trumps content.

I can’t speak for your organisation, but I do know this. Smart business decisions are based on sound information, not how pretty they are.

As much as we try to ban it, PowerPoint isn’t going away, and nor should it. Like any tool or product, it requires the user to know what they’re doing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come with an instruction manual. I’m not talking the “Dummies” books. I’m talking about companies adequately teaching its senior people to use PowerPoint more effectively as a communications tool.

University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Business School recently conducted a survey which unequivocally found that “the ability to communicate is the single greatest factor contributing to one’s success in business, and a critical skill for anyone in a position in leadership.”

It goes on to say:  “Higher grades, better performance reviews, stronger sales results, bigger pay checks, exciting new opportunities, greater respect and admiration, even fame and fortune are but a few of the many rewards that accrue to those who can confidently, convincingly and compellingly present their ideas to others… especially to those who can do so to groups.”

The vast majority of PowerPoint classes, books and workshops all focus on a style of communicating that’s best for public speaking engagements. Seth Godin – really, one of the smartest people on the planet – says his #1 PowerPoint rule is “No more than six words on a slide. EVER. There is no presentation so complex that this rule needs to be broken.”  That’s great, if you’re Seth or any other presenter at a conference, but it often doesn’t work in the hallways of most corporations where PowerPoint is used for every-day communications in decision-making.

The suggestion to NEVER use PowerPoint is even more alarming because the focus has been moved to the presenter, and taken away from the most important aspect:  the audience.  If you remove everything – leaving only the presenter – you reduce the audience’s ability to adequately engage, understand and process information.

The most intelligent perspective about PowerPoint came from Brian Hartzer, who told me that the most effective business documents are two things.

They are pro-active. The author tells the audience what they are trying to do, and what they want the audience to do. They set a bar of expectation among the audience to listen, because they’ve explicitly said what the audience should listen for: a clear recommendation, a considered hypothesis, or an exact business decision.

They are concise. The document gets to the point. They don’t ramble through irrelevant storytelling, glossy pictures or shallow presenters. They have an opinion, and the messages are sharp, positive and explicit.

If there’s a general set of rules to get to that ideal, here are the ones I choose to teach in my workshops.
Be clear from the start the explicit purpose of the document.

To understand how to listen, the audience needs to have a clear understanding of why you are speaking.  The typical audience in a typical business meeting will wait only 30 seconds to get a sense of why they should listen.  If they don’t, they tune out.  You’re lost your audience.  Instead, a sharp, crisp goal at the beginning makes you sound decisive, look confident, and demonstrate a total command of your subject.

Be relevant to your audience.

One of the most important aspects of exceptional leadership communications is that you are the least important person in the conversation.  At a leadership level, nearly 80% of what you need occur in business – if not how you will be judged by your performance –will be performed by the team around you.  If they do not hear why it’s relevant to them, comprehend its impact, and finally change their opinion, attitude or behaviour:  you will not achieve your objectives.  Speak to what you need the audience to do, based on what they know now about your topic.

“Know what you say,” not “Say everything you know.”

Bless them, some people can’t get to the point. It’s usually because they don’t know their point. Everyone needs to have a structured, ordered and prioritized set of messages which has flow, reason and evidence.

Be simple.

When you think of anyone who you consider smart, it’s because they make complexity simple.  Ironic, isn’t it?  That’s what Albert Einstein meant in his famous quote:  “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”  Smart people don’t make complexity more complex.  They cut through the chaff and find the inherent truth or insight, which in turn, leads or suggests a suitable recommendation or decisive plan of action.

People – your audience – thinks visually.  That’s why PowerPoint can be overwhelmingly powerful.

Most people approach PowerPoint first with words. Instead, think about your messages visually. The best slides have a singular point. For example – usually a visual point. That point is clear, it’s immediately readable (either in table-top or on-screen), and, more often than not, in colour.  For every slide, you should always think where you want the audience’s eye to go.  What key point or message do you want to be conveyed first to the eye?  Then, build around that centerpiece with sharply edited information.

And finally,

Put yourself in the shoes of your audience.

Before you ‘finish’ that PowerPoint document, readying it for delivery to your audience, ask yourself whether you’d want that document inflicted on you.  As an audience member, could you quickly find your recommendations, key points, essential messages?  If not, you’re not finished.

Anything else to add to improve how PowerPoint is used effectively?

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Should You Ban PowerPoint?