Opinions And Ramblings By Adam Kmiec On All Things Media

The PowerPoint Conundrum

If you’ve been working professionally for at least 1 year, I’m sure the phrase, “death by PowerPoint” is etched into your brain.  PowerPoint and how we use has become a joke.  A colleague of mine often jokes that with PowerPoint, it’s the one time that there’s too much time spent on foreplay.  I chuckle, but she’s right.  Stop me if you’ve heard this before; but here’s how the typical PowerPoint presentation is structured:

  1. What we’re going to talk about (aka the agenda)
  2. Why we’re (the people in the room) here
  3. The challenge
  4. The research done on the challenge
  5. The hypothesis/point of view/recommendation
  6. The budget
  7. The timing/schedule
  8. The obligatory discussion slide

Are you cowering in the corner, under the harsh light of this reality?  Me too, and I was the one who just wrote it.  Even Microsoft, the architects behind PowerPoint are fed up with this approach.  CEO, Steve Ballmer was recently quoted by the New York Times with the following insight about Microsoft’s decision to move away from death by PowerPoint:

The mode of Microsoft meetings used to be: You come with something we haven’t seen in a slide deck or presentation,” he said. “You deliver the presentation. You probably take what I will call ‘the long and winding road.’ You take the listener through your path of discovery and exploration, and you arrive at a conclusion.

I decided that’s not what I want to do anymore. I don’t think it’s efficient. So most meetings nowadays, you send me the materials and I read them in advance. And I can come in and say: ‘I’ve got the following four questions. Please don’t present the deck.’ That lets us go, whether they’ve organized it that way or not, to their recommendation. And if I have questions about the long and winding road and the data and the supporting evidence, I can ask them. But it gives us greater focus.

In theory, that sounds perfect. Doesn’t it? But, it rarely happens, in my experience, for a few reasons:

  1. Lack of Accountability: We sent you the deck ahead of time, with the notes, but you still didn’t read it ahead of time.  Even I’m guilty of this one.
  2. Lack of Trust: Similar to Gladwell’s points in Blink, it’s tough to believe the conclusion, without the foreplay.  All the upfront slides help sell the conclusion.
  3. Reliance On Linear Story Telling: We’ve been taught from a young age that stories are told in a linear fashion, with a beginning, a middle and an end.  Telling stories in a non-linear fashion does not appeal to the lowest common denominator.
  4. The Need To Make The Presenter Dance: And my personal favorite…if you’ve called the meeting to present your “deck,” then I owe it to the room to make you dance, sweat and present.

I’ve seen this behavior daily, especially in the agency-client RFP scenario.  The number of times we’ve been asked to present “credentials” in the final presentation, even though by now (usually round 3) you should know who we are, what we stand for and why you should trust what we say, is just immeasurable.  But, that’s the dance we dance.

It’s not PowerPoint that’s the problem.  PowerPoint, Keynote and the rest are simply tools.  And, great tools in the hands of poor craftsmen are disasters waiting to happen.

So how do we break this cycle?  How do we change this PowerPoint culture?  The short answer is, we won’t anytime soon.  So long as corporate cultures punish risk takers, applaud playing it safe and treat “innovation” as a buzzword instead of a mindset, we’ll be stuck in the PowerPoint Conundrum.

In my own organization, I’ve tried to break free of the PowerPoint Conundrum.  Ironically, I find the people above me on the organizational chart most open to change.  It’s not the top of the pyramid that struggles with change; in fact, they’re often the ones demanding the change.  It’s the rest of the pyramid that has the problem…or rather perpetuates the problem, because they believe the organization isn’t ready for change and it’s better to play it safe.

But, I ask you if MadMen, a series set in the 1960s can understand there’s a better way to tell a story, tell me why we can’t figure it out 50 years later?

 

Mad Men: The Carousel from ray3c on Vimeo.

It’s a shame, really.

  • Mgraves

    Powerpoint is just a tool, but the tools that we use often define who uses them, and so how effective the resulting communications. This has happened, and continues, in many forms of media.

    For example, in the early ’90s the Mac and Quark Xpress made it possible for anyone to publish very polished and professional looking documents. Newsletters and magazines sprang up everywhere. Most of them looks like trash.

    When the cost of publishing tools kept them in the hands of professionals they tended to produce consistently high-level work. When every secretary has Quark you quickly bump your head against Sturgeon’s law. Rarely does such a person have the collection of communications skills necessary to create a clear, attractive and effective document.

    Further, since the process of producing said document is a whole lot less costly it tends to engage fewer people. That makes it more a reflection of one persons abilities. The importance of each document is diminished. Quality of communication suffers.

    Move ahead a decade and the very same transition has happened in the realm of video.

    Communication skills are what matter. The ability to write clearly. Speak clearly. Be compelling. Amass visual support for your arguments, etc.

  • Suzanne

    Most people feel comfortable with powerpoint or any other form of documentation because its a tactical take away of someone elses thoughts. Half the time they don’t absorb information when its presented – they need the take away to review, absorb and ask questions. I have to say that there are very few people who can actually document their own thoughts (foreplay or whatever) in a way that someone else can even interpret. Next phase? More visuals – less words.