There have been a few interesting blog posts recently about PowerPoint being the root of all evil when it comes to presentations, with one conference even deciding to ban it altogether. Jon Thomas at Presentation Advisors makes some good points about how this is solving the wrong problem.
PowerPoint is not the problem, and nor is Keynote (as an Apple fan I won’t fall into the trap of pretending there’s only one slideware application out there). Blaming the application for the poor slides is like blaming a word-processor for a bad essay. It’s like many other IT-related problems – it’s all down to PEBKAC.
However, these slideware applications are in large part responsible for the plethora of abysmal presentations, and for the costly degeneration of intra-corporate communication. It’s not their fault. But they are responsible for it.
That’s a controversial statement from someone who makes a living using these applications. So let me explain.
Many years ago, at some time after the invention of the printing press and before the invention of slideware apps, people used to communicate with rudimentary tools and visual supports. They might write on a blackboard with a piece of chalk, or hand out photocopies of some notes or graphs. Then came flipcharts, which made it easier to use colours than with blackboards, and easier to use plenty of drawings. And then came the revolutionary OHP – the OverHead Projector, which allowed anyone able to write or print on a transparent piece of plastic to have their work projected on a screen behind them.
The OHP was the beginning of trouble. However, it was still painful enough to produce an OHP slide that you’d only do it for the things you really needed to show. For the rest of the talk, you’d actually speak to people and try to communicate with them.
Then came PowerPoint and Keynote, and everything got a whole lot easier. These applications made it easy to produce simple slides to show on the wall behind you, so you no longer needed an OHP and you could produce as many slides as you wanted without a lot of trouble. In fact, it was so easy that most people didn’t take much trouble with their slides.
Slowly but surely, the slides became the presentation. When someone in the corporate world asks you: “Have you prepared your presentation?” they really mean: “Have you created your slides?” Which is clearly the wrong question to ask. Well, clearly to me and probably to you – but not for the majority of corporate animals who have never known anything else.
People got so used to not having to spend much time on each slide, and using the slides as speaker notes, that it became the norm to have lots of slides. It became almost unheard-of to make a corporate presentation without using slides. A new generation of businesspeople grew up with slide abuse as the norm, and naturally they perpetuated what they had learned as the right way of doing things.
The growth of email as the main form of written communication, replacing a large part of what used to be verbal communication via old technology like the telephone or actually speaking to somebody face-to-face, then created the need to share documents with people in order to share information. At some point, the first corporate animal got the idea that if he had to make a presentation to some people, and then share something in writing with them afterwards, maybe he could just do the work once. (Ladies, I use the male pronoun because whoever this dumb person was, it was almost certainly a man.) So he put everything on his slides so that anyone READING the slides, WITHOUT hearing the talk, would mostly understand.
Thus was born the phenomenon of the slide-as-document, neither a decent document nor a decent set of visual supports. Maybe it could have been good. A centaur – half-man, half-horse – was pretty useful with a man’s chest, head and arms and a horse’s body and fast legs. Sadly, the slide-as-document is as useful as the centaur would have been had it had a man’s body and horse’s head.
Presenters then realised that it required even less preparation if they actually wrote everything on their slides, so this became the norm. They could just stand there and read the slides, so they didn’t actually need to prepare mentally for the speech. Slides became their crutch – a support for the presenter, not for the benefit of the attendees, as Scott Adams so simply pointed out.
And that is the sad story of how a great advance in technology has taken us backwards. Think how many presentations are given inside and between companies every day. Think how much time is spent making and listening to presentations. Think how much that time costs. And then think how efficient the communication really is – and how much better it could be if the messages were passed properly and memorably.
Maybe improving the way people communicate is what our companies need to get the most out of their human capital, and pull our economies out of recession by a massive increase in productivity. It certainly wouldn’t do any harm. What is for sure is that we have to solve the right problem, which is to teach people how to get their messages across effectively, and how to avoid the typical pitfalls of the modern presentation.
We don’t need to ban slideware. We need to banish bad slides.