Today’s New York Times has a lead article on the US military’s use of PowerPoint, entitled We Have Met The Enemy and He Is PowerPoint. This is the presentation news of the day, retweeted and discussed in various blogs.
Some agree that PowerPoint is the enemy. Others disagree. Even Seth Godin weighs in with “Guns don’t kill people, bullets do” although unlike some other bloggers he correctly points out that the issue is misuse of PowerPoint. I have already explained in this blog how I don’t believe slideware is the problem with bad presentations – it’s the poor use of slideware that causes the problem. In the right hands, PowerPoint and KeyNote can be used to produce fantastic visuals.
Nonetheless, there is an item in the NYT article which I believe is worthy of further comment. Some officers claim to spend a huge portion of their time creating slides, not for keynote presentations, but as records of events. This was similar to my experience in large corporations where I spent a major part of my time creating slides which would never be given in front of an audience because my hierarchy required it. Hell, we had to create business plans in PowerPoint. I’ve spent far less time with PowerPoint since I became a full-time presentation coach!
Is this how we want our soldiers and officers to be spending their time? Does the Taleban waste valuable time and effort on creating slides? They must be having a good chuckle reading how their enemy wastes its time. The same is true of many corporations.
What is the answer? Ban PowerPoint? Sure, let’s throw out the baby with the bathwater, that would be really smart. Why reduce the efficiency of the few presentations that could really benefit from some good slides? While we’re at it, we could ban gas-guzzling 4x4s (SUVs) because too many city-dwellers buy them, with no regard for the farmers who really need four-wheel-drive vehicles.
No, let’s not ban PowerPoint. But that’s no reason to do nothing. Whether you are in the military, or a corporation, or any kind of organization, there are things you can do to reduce PowerPoint abuse:
- If you currently require ANYONE to produce slides, ask yourself why. What would happen if they didn’t arrive? Is there a better medium such as a word-processor? You should only require people to produce slides if they are to be delivered in front of a live audience or via webinar/webcast, and if the presentation requires slides to aid explanation or drive a message home.
- Look at what your people spend time doing – and what you spend time doing – and ask whether it is directly contributing to your customers, your objectives and your added value. If not, ask whether that added value would diminish if the activity were deprioritized. And if not, deprioritize it. This goes beyond PowerPoint of course.
- When someone in your organization needs to make a presentation, do not ask “have you done your slides?” – that is the wrong question! Do not assume that every speech requires slides. When did you last see President Obama using slides? But isn’t he a great communicator? Ask instead (if you must) “have you prepared your presentation?”
- Send your people on a course about presentation skills (not a course on how to use PowerPoint). That will help them to learn when to use slides, how to use them well – and when not to use them at all. Frankly, you should follow the course as well, and so should your boss.
In the meantime, corporations and the military alike will continue to abuse PowerPoint, and it shouldn’t come as news to anybody. But blaming PowerPoint for poor slides and misuse is no fairer than blaming a bullet for the poor aim of a rifleman.