Don’t Ban PowerPoint: Learn to Create Thoughtful Presentations Instead

Ban PowerPointThere are few things so irredeemably bad that they are banned outright, no exceptions. You would think that torture should be, but our own government has found a workaround for that by redefining the word when it’s convenient. Killing endangered animals seems like an obvious candidate for a ban, but every few months I see stories about someone defending their right to pay to “hunt” elephants, rhinos or giraffes. We can’t even stop Adam Sandler from making movies. But should we ban PowerPoint?

A Washington Post piece by Katrin Park (self-consciously illustrated with PowerPoint slides) argues that PowerPoint should simply be banned. While I agree with most of her points about how the seemingly inescapable software is misused (and many of her examples are eerily similar to posts I’ve previously written), a ban isn’t the answer. Lots of tools can lead you to a bad result if you don’t know how to use them. Chainsaws. Nail guns. Ladders. That doesn’t mean we should just get rid of them.

Park points to TED talks as examples of presentations that have moved away from slides (which she calls “presentations”) to storytelling, but many TED talks are accompanied by slides. The difference is that the speakers have learned (or been coached) not to let their slides take the focus away from themselves. And, sure, there are other great products to help you create visual aids for your presentations, like Prezi, but they won’t make your presentations better if you don’t put in the effort. It’s just as easy to make an awful presentation with Prezi as it is with PowerPoint. Actually, Prezi is the only presentation software I’ve know to make people physically ill. Some presenters get so excited about its ability to swoop and spin around the screen that they literally make their audiences nauseous.

So what should you do?

First, don’t ban PowerPoint. Simply eliminating a tool, one with which many people are comfortable and that has been useful to them for a long time, doesn’t make sense. Besides, a lot of these “bans” just don’t work. As Park points out, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates found that PowerPoint was so ingrained in the culture of the Pentagon that even he couldn’t root it out.

But maybe it’s time to take a break.

A PowerPoint hiatus could be a great idea at your organization to help bring out creative responses to the problem of presenting and teach people that they don’t need to approach every presentation the same way. Try eliminating PowerPoint during one meeting, at your office for a week, or at your next company retreat to see what happens. But make sure that everyone knows what you expect from them and provide examples of other presentation software or formats that they might try. Otherwise they may have a serious panic attack. Remember, the only way many people know how to give a presentation is with slides.

So try other presentation software. Or try doing without slides and use storytelling, a whiteboard, or a demonstration instead. But don’t blame PowerPoint itself for lazy, un-engaging, and ineffective presentations. Those are the speaker’s fault, not the software’s.

If you’re looking for ideas on how to create better presentations, this blog is a good place to start.

Katrin Park: PowerPoint Should Be Banned

The Other Prism Scandal: Ugly Slides


The scandal surrounding the NSA’s surveillance program broke while I was on vacation last week, and it’s pretty shocking. I mean, have you seen these slides? The colors used by their designer(s) are awful, the way they’ve placed objects on the background makes them look confused and cluttered, and they’ve made some really bad choices with fonts and typography. Worst of all, some of their illustrations just don’t make sense.

When I first saw these slides they reminded me of the exercises I used to lead students through when I started teaching PowerPoint in 1997. In order to train people on all of PowerPoint’s features we’d have them draw random shapes, fill them with colors and text, create charts and animation. We’d use every tool in the toolkit whether we needed it or not. Looking at the images of these NSA slides, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they had been created so that each element flew in accompanied by a zooming car sound.

But we probably shouldn’t be surprised by the quality of these slides. Most of the millions of PowerPoint presentations cranked out every day are ugly and poorly planned. I think the difference is that we assume that the government, and especially our spy agencies, have the resources they need to do a better job. If they can squeeze all those cool gadgets into James Bond’s Aston Martin, can’t they hire a designer who knows they should never use yellow and green as a color scheme?

The great thing about other peoples’ mistakes is that we can learn from them. Understandably, most presenters don’t want to share examples of their bad presentations, so it can be difficult to find useful examples to critique. But now that we have these wonderful, ugly, formerly top secret slides available, let’s see what they can teach us. (For bigger versions, click on each slide).

Why not start with the title slide? White can be a fine background choice (it’s certainly better than bright colors or distracting textures), but you have to limit the other colors you use on a white background. Light colors are very hard to read when you project slides against white, so the yellow, light blue, and even the red “Top Secret” stamp will likely wash out. So the slides’ overall design is questionable from the very beginning. The audience might not even be able to see some of the most important information.

Then there are the company logos splashed across the top. Why do they need to be included on every slide? Why not just give them their own slide listing the participants? Flinging them across the screen like this looks messy and makes everything hard to read–especially since the logos themselves are in so many different colors and fonts. The effect is a kind of logo soup. Bad design choices aside, I’m curious if they even have permission to use the logos of these companies. I highly doubt it, but someone must have figured that it didn’t matter if all of this was top secret.

And a couple of other things from this one slide:

  • More logos: The “Special Source Operations” logo is unattractive enough, but the “PRISM” logo is ridiculous. Why does every program and initiative need a logo these days? And couldn’t they find one that doesn’t look like a misshapen reject for a Batman (the 60’s TV version) villain?
  • Why does this presentation need two different titles (indicated by the “or”)?
  • Why is the second title (“The SIGAD Used Most in NSA Reporting”) in italics? Why does it sound vaguely like an advertisement for sugar-free gum?

Spionage PrismHere’s our second slide, and it’s as bad as the first one. The first thing I’d like to point out is that it really should be two slides–one about when each company joined the program, and another about its costs. There’s just no imaginable reason to include both here. Every slide in your presentations should represent just one main idea. Your goal should be to make your ideas as clear as possible, not to cram information on the screen. PowerPoint slides are pretty much a limitless resource, so go ahead and create as many as you need.

Other things to notice:

  • The effect of having all those logos and a title at the top of the screen is really noticeable here. Combined, they take up a third of the slide and leave little room for what really matters.
  • The colors. There used to be a house in my neighborhood that was painted these colors, and everyone called it the lemon-lime house. It’s a tasteless color combo anywhere, but it’s also bound to be very difficult to read whether this slide is projected or printed. And that pinkish “Program Cost” bubble? Ugh.
  • The chart. What’s called for here is a timeline. So why do the yellow bubbles and green background rise as time goes on? What does that have to do with time? And why are there two separate green objects behind the yellow bubbles? Did they need to bend the line so it wouldn’t crash into the ugly PRISM logo (which it almost does anyway)?

3.1Our third slide has more pink, but less yellow! Again, this should probably be two different slides, one with the text in the box and another with the diagram explaining network traffic. Putting them both on the same slide makes them hard to read. My image here isn’t the best quality, but I think the diagram would be hard to read on all but the biggest projector screens. Maybe I’m just getting old… Also:

  • It looks like “U.S. as World’s Telecommunications Backbone” is italicized here, except for the initial “U”. That’s just sloppy, and the italics don’t really make sense anyway.
  • “Cheapest” and “not the most physically direct” are both bolded and underlined, which is completely unnecessary and just makes it harder to read. If your computer lets you bold your text there’s rarely a reason to also underline it. (Indicating a hyperlink is one).

4.1The fourth slide suffers from problems that should be familiar at this point. Notice again how everything has to be crammed onto the slide. There’s not nearly enough white space and the green arrow intrudes on both text boxes. The easy solution would be to get rid of the list of providers since we already know who they are. Why repeat them here? Also:

  • There’s a note above the purple box that indicates that the information collected “varies by provider”. That makes me wonder how accurate any of this information is anyway, and why they’d wanted to list all of the providers here. Why not just say, “these are the things we typically collect”?
  • This slide has text boxes in entirely different colors than we’ve seen before. Is the designer trying to make each slide novel? Only 5 of the 41 slides in this presentation have been published, but I’m starting to wonder if each one has its own color scheme.

See how much fun we can have analyzing other peoples’ presentations? Just imagine if we had all the rest of the slides from this deck! I thought about taking the next logical step and redesigning the slides myself, but after finding that others had already beat me to it I decided that the world didn’t need my own version of the NSA’s work. But it’s an exercise I wholeheartedly recommend if you’re interested in learning how to improve bad presentations.

Redesigned slides

Presentation Tools: Prezi For Visual Aids

If you’ve never used Prezi to create the visual aids for your presentations (or even if you just haven’t worked with Prezi in a while) now is a great time to give it another look. They’ve rolled out a new website, a new editor, and this introductory video. It even features my great friend David Park of Xterra Solutions, who was one of my earliest converts to Prezi!

Prezi Video

Xterra Solutions

The Problem With PowerPoint: The Gettysburg Address Slides

I’ve been using the Gettysburg Address PowerPoint in my presentation training since the very first class I taught. Because the speech is so well known (partly because it’s so brief), these slides by Peter Norvig provide a great example of how PowerPoint can drain the life from even the most powerful and important ideas. Reducing the speech to bullet points is so ridiculous and at the same time so familiar that it never fails to provoke uneasy laughter from an audience. They’ve all seen–and usually given–presentations just like this.

At this point these slides are almost 15 years old and Norvig is now the head of research at Google. But it’s just as good of a lesson about the over-reliance on PowerPoint as it was way back in the 20th century. If anything, it’s become an even better example as the dated PowerPoint design looks more and more ridiculous. You can almost imagine Lincoln agonizing over whether to use this template or my old favorite, “Dad’s Tie.”

But I hadn’t heard the story of why Norvig created the presentation until I came across this video on YouTube. It turns out that he put it together in 1998 while working on a team at NASA investigating the failure of two Mars probes. He felt like PowerPoint was allowing participants on the project to distance themselves from the real issues they should be concerned with and that they’d be more productive if they just sat down and had a discussion instead of creating slides. So he built some slides of his own to show how PowerPoint could obscure or even hide what was really at stake.

I particularly love the part of the video where he describes being concerned that he’d have to spend a lot of time finding the worst possible combination of colors and fonts for his slides and discovering that the PowerPoint wizard solved that problem for him with no effort at all.

If you’re reading this in email format, you can view the slides and video on my blog or here:

Gettysburg Address PowerPoint

Peter Norvig Video

The World’s Simplest Presentation Skills Class

I’m of two minds about whether Facebook is a force for good or evil in our lives. But I am pretty amazed about how it has helped me reconnect in person with friends I haven’t seen in ages. Last year I had lunch in Washington DC with my friend Liz Wiley, who I hadn’t talked to since high school (hi Liz!).  And a couple of months ago I managed to have dinner with Tim Goldsmith after discovering that we were both in Atlanta on business. Connecting wasn’t easy since neither of us knew the city very well and the GPS in his rental car seemed to be giving him lousy directions, but we finally met up at Taqueria del Sol in Decatur.

I’m not sure I’d seen him since we lived in Santa Cruz in 1990, so we had a lot to catch up on. As usually happens in these situations, one of the first things to come up was work. It’s kind of a shame how that happens, isn’t it? He told me about his brand new job and I explained that I was developing public speaking and presentation skills training.

“You should just tell your students to take all of the junk off of their slides and then show them a video of Steve Jobs,” Tim said.

It’s not exactly a comprehensive course, but it’s a good piece of advice if it’s all you have time for.

Class dismissed!

Hail of Bullets: PowerPoint and the Military

Think that the mindless use of PowerPoint is just a problem in corporate workplaces?  Sure, there are a lot of bad presentations out there and they waste a lot of time.  But they’re hardly a matter of life and death or national security, right?

Well think again.  Check out this quote:

“The best way to paralyze an opposition army is to ship it PowerPoint.”

Who would say such a ridiculous thing?  You’d think that they must really have it in for PowerPoint, wouldn’t you?

But this is actually a quote that Robert Gaskins and Dennis Austin, the inventors of PowerPoint, gave to the Wall Street Journal.  Gaskins feels strongly that PowerPoint is simply overused, that people spend too much time messing around with things like fonts and the look of their slides rather than spending the time developing their ideas.  As he conceived it, PowerPoint slides were meant to act as quick visual summaries of  bigger ideas and documents.  But now, he complains, “a lot of people in business have given up writing the documents. They just write the presentations, which are summaries without the detail, without the backup. A lot of people don’t like the intellectual rigor of actually doing the work.”

But surely Gaskins and Austin are just using the military as a metaphor, right?  There’s no way that our armed forces could get bogged down in a PowerPoint quagmire, is there?  According to several recent articles about the debate over the use of PowerPoint in the military, it’s a real threat.  A couple of years ago there was a story about the army investigating why there was so much traffic clogging up its computer networks.  Their first guess was that they were having the same problems that many corporate networks experience— too many people downloading videos, MP3s and other media for their personal use.  But what their analysis found surprised them; a huge amount of their bandwidth was being consumed by the transfer of PowerPoint files.

Then there was We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint in the New York Times, accompanied by the following slide– which was meant to illustrate the situation faced by the forces in Afghanistan but has come to represent the limitations of PowerPoint:

The meaning of this slide is perfectly clear, right?

When General Stanley McChrystal, who was in charge of our forces in Afghanistan, was shown this slide he joked “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”  The main thing most people get from looking at it is how incomprehensible it is.  Did someone really create this slide intending to put it on a screen and have people read it?  That it could represent the complicated relationships between all of the various groups in Afghanistan? How could they?

Admittedly, it’s an extreme example, but it is a great visual representation of the overwhelming complexity of so many of the slides that people put together without really thinking about whether they can possibly be effective.  We’ve seen people use slides that were almost as complicated.  Network engineers are inordinately fond of diagramming things down to the tiniest detail, even when they’re presenting to an audience of laymen who have no chance of understanding what they’re being shown.

Some of the other Generals quoted by the Times are more blunt than McChrystal.  “PowerPoint makes us stupid,”  according to Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis.  Another explains  “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control.  Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

Besides the dangers created by reducing complex issues to simple bullet points, one of the most frequently mentioned issues with PowerPoint in the military is how much time is being taken up by the need to create slides for every presentation and briefing.  One officer makes his job sound like an endless process of created slides:

Last year when a military Web site, Company Command, asked an Army platoon leader in Iraq, Lt. Sam Nuxoll, how he spent most of his time, he responded, “Making PowerPoint slides.” When pressed, he said he was serious.  “I have to make a storyboard complete with digital pictures, diagrams and text summaries on just about anything that happens,” Lieutenant Nuxoll told the Web site. “Conduct a key leader engagement? Make a storyboard. Award a microgrant? Make a storyboard.”

It’s a problem that hasn’t escaped the attention of the military’s top leaders.  In what he has said is his final address to cadets at West Point, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pointed to this as one of the major issues that the military is going to be forced to deal with in the future.  Although the recent conflicts fought by the army has given junior officers outstanding experience and skills, it may be hard to retain them when they find themselves doing office work:

“Men and women in the prime of their professional lives, who may have been responsible for the lives of scores or hundreds of troops, or millions of dollars in assistance, or engaging or reconciling warring tribes, may find themselves in a cube all day re-formatting PowerPoint slides, preparing quarterly training briefs, or assigned an ever-expanding array of clerical duties,” Mr. Gates said. “The consequences of this terrify me.”

Obviously, this problem isn’t unique to the military. Does it sound like your workplace?

Every day over-reliance on slides renders millions of presentations dull or incomprehensible and leaves people feeling like they’re doing busywork rather than something that’s actually interesting or helpful.  People in all kinds of jobs put together PowerPoint slides out of habit, whether that’s what they really need or not, because they think it’s what’s expected of them.  They think of slides as a mandatory part of any presentation, or they simply emulate what they see everyone else doing (peer pressure doesn’t end in high school).  They feel like it shows people, especially their bosses, that they’ve produced something.  Conference, companies and professional organizations expect you to have slides for all of your talks;  so that’s what we do by default.

The military isn’t the only place where the impulse to create PowerPoint slides is leading to ineffective presentations and stifled careers. Creating all of these slides comes at the expense of doing work that is thoughtful and useful.

Next time you’re thinking about doing a presentation, try to ask yourself what you could do differently than what’s expected of presentations in your environment.  What can you do that would really grab an audience’s attention?  What would make it more interesting for you?

Here’s a hint:  just about anything will be better than bullet points on slides.

Secretary Robert Gates on PowerPoint: The Terror

From the department of Everyone Hates PowerPoint

While speaking to West Point cadets, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates described PowerPoint (and other mind-numbing tasks that sound like they came from job descriptions I’ve had) as one of the biggest threats to the future of the military:

A decade of constant conflict has trained a junior officer corps with exceptional leadership skills, he told the cadets, but the Army may find it difficult in the future to find inspiring work to retain its rising commanders as it fights for the money to keep large, heavy combat units in the field.

“Men and women in the prime of their professional lives, who may have been responsible for the lives of scores or hundreds of troops, or millions of dollars in assistance, or engaging or reconciling warring tribes, may find themselves in a cube all day re-formatting PowerPoint slides, preparing quarterly training briefs, or assigned an ever-expanding array of clerical duties,” Mr. Gates said. “The consequences of this terrify me.”