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

How PowerPoint Is Ruining Teaching: Learning Bad Habits Young


Think bad slides are only a problem at the office? Or in the military? Here’s a piece by Rebecca Shuman from Slate that describes the use of PowerPoint in the classroom as the “scourge” of higher education–written entirely in the form of a slide deck. But the problems she points out aren’t unique to schools; all of them would be painfully familiar to anyone who sits through business presentations.

Unfortunately, the cycle of bad slides and worse presentation habits has become self-reinforcing. People in the workplace rely too much on PowerPoint instead of creating truly engaging presentations. Teachers and students adopt the technology and all of the bad habits they see modeled in business. Newly minted graduates find jobs and bring their presentation “skills” with them, perpetuating the Circle of Lifeless Presentations.

Luckily for Schuman, she has one advantage most people don’t; she can ban PowerPoint from her classroom. Few of us hold that kind of sway over our conference rooms. So what can you do? Try to show your students, employees, and co-workers that there’s a better, less bullet-riddled way to conduct presentations. Start a more virtuous cycle.

Slate: How PowerPoint is Ruining Higher Ed

Presentation Tips: Don’t Rely Solely On A Script

Samsung has been very successful at emulating Apple’s iPhones and iPads. What they haven’t been able to copy nearly as well are Apple’s slick and effective product presentations. In fact, Samsung’s efforts have frequently been seen as strange, awkward, even sexist. But they’ve seldom gone as spectacularly wrong as when Samsung included director Michael Bay in the rollout of new televisions at CES this week.

After getting confused about which part of the script he was reading from the teleprompter, Bay fumbled around and was unable to recover. Trying to help, his co-presenter gave him an opportunity to ad lib by asking, “Tell us what you think,” but Bay was so dependent on the prepared script that he was totally lost. “I’m sorry,” he said as he walked off stage.

Here’s how he later described what happened:

Wow! I just embarrassed myself at CES – I was about to speak for Samsung for this awesome Curved 105-inch UHD TV. I rarely lend my name to any products, but this one is just stellar. I got so excited to talk, that I skipped over the Exec VP’s intro line and then the teleprompter got lost. Then the prompter went up and down – then I walked off. I guess live shows aren’t my thing.

Unfortunately, the temptation to script live events ruins far too many presentations. Scripts get lost, notes get shuffled, unexpected events interrupt a speaker’s train of thought and they can’t get back on track. While I encourage everyone to write out their presentations as an exercise in working through their thoughts, it’s almost always a bad idea to depend on a script in order to deliver your talk. There are just too many things that can go wrong, and very few of us are good at memorizing or reading a speech in a way that will actually engage an audience.

If you’re giving a talk, it’s your job to know the material well enough that you can speak with a few notes or an outline to remind you where you’re going. And you need to be willing to improvise a little when things don’t go as planned. For example, if you’re the director of Transformers and you’re asked what you think of the giant TV you’re standing next to, say something like: “That TV is huge! Explosions, robots, and exploding robots will look great on that thing!”

Michael Bay at CES

Michael Bay Responds to his CES Meltdown

Presentation Tips: Don’t Use Your Gun As A Laser Pointer

If you’re giving a presentation and want to emphasize something on your slides, the laser sight on your handgun is not an appropriate substitute for a pointer. This is a tip that had never occurred to me before because, well, it just seems obvious. And you’d think it would be especially obvious to someone who is, say, in charge of homeland security for the state of New York. But an incident recently reported by the Albany Times Union shows that some people could use a little clarity about the different uses of guns and laser pointers:

Jerome M. Hauer, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s director of homeland security, took out his handgun and used the laser sighting device attached to the barrel as a pointer in a presentation to a foreign delegation, according to public officials. It happened Oct. 24 in Albany at the highly secure state emergency operations center below State Police headquarters.

These officials, one of whom claimed to be an eyewitness, said that three Swedish emergency managers in the delegation were rattled when the gun’s laser tracked across one of their heads before Hauer found the map of New York, at which he wanted to point.

Reading this account, I can’t help but think of the Simpsons episode where Homer gets a gun and starts to use it for every task, including turning off the lights. But a gun should not be used like a Swiss Army knife with a laser attachment.

So just to be clear, unless you’re doing a presentation about guns, they are not an appropriate part of your talk.

Albany Times Union: Ready … aim … point … talk

Improving Your Presentations: Ask Yourself These Questions

Last week I had the pleasure of serving as a judge in a presentation contest for people who were using Prezi for the first time. Staging a Prezi competition is such a terrrific idea that I’m already planning to steal it in the near future. It’s a great way to take advantage of our competitive nature in order to get people to engage with and learn the software. And, unlike an Excel contest, a Prezi showdown can be pretty fun. I enjoyed all of the presentations we looked at and was completely impressed with what everyone had come up with on their first attempt. It reminded me how easy it is to pick up Prezi and start making good use of it without having to deal with a steep learning curve.

And being a Prezi judge (I have to remember to add that skill to my LinkedIn profile!) was useful for me because I was forced to think about the criteria I was using to evaluate the presentations. I couldn’t just pick the one I liked best without having some solid reasoning for why. Which confirms my long-held suspicion that, as a judge, I’m more Simon Cowell than Paul Abdul.

You may never find yourself in an actual contest, but it’s important to understand that every presentation you give will be judged. So it’s crucial that you take some time to sit down and evaluate your own work before someone else does. Here are some of the things I considered while watching the Prezi competition. Most of them would be useful questions to ask yourself whether you were using Prezi, PowerPoint, or any other kind of visual aid.

  • Is my presentation’s message clear?
  • Is the overall look and tone of my presentation appropriate for what I have to say?
  • Do my visual aids support my message. Are they distracting?
  • Am I using features of the software for a good reason, or just because I can?
  • Are my visual aids cluttered? What could be simplified?
  • Are the words on the screen there to help the audience, or am I using them as a script for what I want to say?
  • Is the text easy to read? Is it big enough? Is there too much of it?
  • Is the color scheme I’ve used appropriate? Is it going to provide enough contrast for the audience? Am I using too many colors?
  • Do the images I’m using go well together? Are they clever, or cliched? Do I have the right to use them?

Prezi only:

  • Is the zooming between elements of my presentation likely to make the audience feel seasick? (If so, move them closer together and/or make them more similar in size to reduce the distance of the zoom).

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

Visual Aids: Think Poetry, Not Paragraphs

Excellent advice, whether you’re using Prezi, PowerPoint, or a good old whiteboard. Simplify your visual aids and treat them as exhibits for your audience, not as your script.

Think Poetry, Not Paragraphs

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

Writing Fiction in Slides: Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad” PowerPoint

One of the biggest problems with relying on PowerPoint for all of your presentations is that it’s not a very good format for the storytelling that needs to be a part of any persuasive argument. The interruptions between slides and the relentless onslaught of bullets aren’t very effective at creating a coherent narrative. At least that’s what I tell the people in my presentation training classes.

Here to prove me wrong is a chapter from Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad told entirely in PowerPoint. I guess winning a Pulitzer will teach me a lesson!

You can read (view? play?– we may need new language for these kinds of things) the entire chapter here:

Imagine my surprise when I turned (flipped? swiped?) a page of the novel expecting to find the next chapter and found myself staring at a PowerPoint slide instead. Because I was reading on my iPad it was even more startling than it would have been if I’d been reading the hardcover. It was almost as if I’d accidentally switched programs and was suddenly  working on a presentation instead of just enjoying a good story by the pool. My brain had to come to a full stop and switch gears in order to recover.

By the way, I’m not a big fan of e-readers, despite many peoples’ attempts to convince me of their benefits. Maybe it’s just my age, but I think it also has something to do with my academic training and the way I learned to love the physical elements of books at the same time I was learning to appreciate their contents.

My skepticism isn’t even about the technological limitations of e-readers– the advantages of certain kinds of screens or the limits of their battery lives. I like to own the concrete book itself, to be able to browse them on my shelves, hoard them, lend them to people I trust, smell the fresh ink when they are new and the dust they collect when they aren’t.

But mostly I like to be able to write in them. As a child I never would have written in my books out of fear of “ruining” them. But more than a decade of college and grad school put me in the habit of making notes in everything I read. I underline sections I think are important, put stars next to big ideas, make lists, brainstorm and note important page numbers on the inside covers.

It’s not like I’m planning to do any work on most of the things I read; I’m not going to write book reports about them. I just like being able to interact with my books this way and feel like it helps slow down my reading so I actually pay better attention and retain more of what I’ve read. Without a pen in my hand it’s too easy to just pass my eyes over the words and feel like I’ve read something and wind up with only a vague recollection of it later.

But last week I was on vacation in Santa Barbara (coincidentally where I picked up my habit of scribbling notes in college) without a book of my own to read and mark up. I did have my iPad, however, and downloaded a copy of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, a novel that I’d given to my mom for Christmas but hadn’t read myself. It’s a good read, cleverly constructed of interlocking chapters that tell the stories of a group of characters from different perspectives.

Not having a hard copy was actually kind of a fortuitous accident. I don’t know if Egan had given much thought to the added impact that PowerPoint would have when the novel was viewed on an e-reader, but it was the first time that I felt I was having a more powerful experience reading something on a screen than I would have in a book.

Confronted with slides, my brain just had no idea what to do and I was suddenly jolted out of my normal reading experience. There was the familiar slide format, the default layout of a title slide, the uninspired choice of font. But what was it doing in the middle of a novel? I even had to turn my head sideways to read the text since the slides weren’t rotating correctly on my iPad.

While the inspiration to write fiction in PowerPoint is brilliant and handled here with great skill, it also gives us an idea of how hard it is to actually tell a story this way. The biggest issue I find with following a narrative in PowerPoint is figuring out how to read the slides. Without a live presenter to connect the dots, how do you know at first glance how one slide follows another? What connects them? Transitions– the ideas, not the animations– are really hard to create between slides when you want to propel a story forward. And how do you even know how to read the elements in a slide? Do your read left to right, across then down? Clockwise? How do you interpret the graphic elements and how do they relate to the words? It’s a totally different way of reading then simply following the sentences that make up a normal narrative.

These issues are something that we all need to remember when we’re creating our presentations. We “read” slides differently than other kinds of texts and, despite the habits of many presenters, we shouldn’t create slides that are covered with paragraphs of text. Slides should be treated as visual aids that support what you have to say as the speaker, not as your script itself. By design, your slides should leave out a lot of what you plan to say. Slides are a framework– as the speaker you need to provide the connective tissue.

Egan talks about this discordant effect that including a chapter written in PowerPoint has on her book in an interview that’s posted on Amazon.
 Writing in a non-traditional and “difficult” format like PowerPoint highlights the gaps, awkward spots and changes of style and tone throughout the whole novel. She even says that she didn’t really understand the overall structure of the book until the rest of it was already written and she was working on the PowerPoint section, that the whole novel is about the kind of discontinuity exhibited in this one chapter. PowerPoint lets her really highlight this effect.

“PowerPoint is not continuous,” she tells her interviewer:

“It is not a flow. It is a series of images and moments.  Which is really how the whole book works.”

“This book is all about the pauses.  A lot of the action takes place during the pauses and we visit people at other moments after these pauses or before they begin.  I think it really is the lynchpin.”

The challenges of telling a story in PowerPoint, the problems of making transitions between slides and bullet points, are exactly what she’s trying to demonstrate.  They’re at the heart of the book.

There are at least a couple of things that presenters can learn from this novel experiment.  First, despite my insistence that PowerPoint isn’t the right tool for telling a story, it can be done. But it requires a lot of thought to do it well. It also helps to be an experienced and much-awarded novelist like Egan.

Second, it can be really useful to think of the pieces of your presentations that you don’t put up on screen in the way that Egan talks about the “pauses” that contain much of the action from her story. As the speaker you have to tell a compelling story, but you don’t have to put everything up on the screen.

Actually, an experiment in storytelling through PowerPoint makes a great exercise if you feel like giving yourself a little homework. Think about a story that you know really well. It could be anything: a fairy tale, the story of your prom date or the plot of a Seinfeld episode. How would you tell it in PowerPoint? What resources would you use? Visual aids? Bullet points? Sound effects or video?  What would you put on the screen and what would you just tell your audience in the “pauses”?

The bottom line is to figure out which parts are really important and are likely to be interesting and influential to your audience. Then try to create all your presentations by telling your stories that way. It’s not always easy, but finding a way to structure your presentations as stories is one of the best ways to ensure your success.

Egan on Amazon:

Avoiding Public Speaking Disasters: Prepare Your Technology and Bribe the AV Guy

The Times‘ David Pogue offers some great advice for speakers in Technology, or Lack Thereof, at the Podium. Some of his anecdotes will be hilarious and painful for anyone who does much public speaking because they’ll recognize that moment of dread when they know that things aren’t going to turn out the way they’d hoped. My most recent painful encounter with an AV guy happened when I was scheduled to give a talk at an big technology company. I was prepared with all the right dongles (Pogue is right– Macs tend to make AV people panic, so be sure to let them know you’ve brought your own ASAP) but asked my host to send someone to turn on their projector and sound equipment because I didn’t want to screw anything up.

The guy arrived quickly, but was obviously already stressed at 8:30 in the morning. He grunted, flipped a switch or two and greeted me by saying “they never should have scheduled you for this.” Luckily his attitude softened a bit when I flashed my dongle and he saw that I wasn’t a rookie who would be requiring a lot of hand-holding. Still, what a warm greeting and great way to start the day….

The key to avoiding the kind of technology disasters Pogue describes (and ingratiating yourself with the AV guy) is to be as prepared as possible. Visit the room in advance so you’ll know what you’re dealing with. Bring printed copies of your presentation as a back-up plan. And make sure you have all of the equipment you’ll need by checking in advance with the people running the facility you’ll be using. Even better, bring everything you need with you. It’s not a bad idea to arrive with your own cables, remote, even your own projector if possible. An iPhone or iPad can make a great remote control or act as a the kind of “confidence monitor” that Pogue describes. I’ve even used them as teleprompters for recording video.

Whatever you do, make sure to befriend the AV guy. If it’s a catered event offer him a doughnut or a sandwich. You need him on your side!