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

Advertisements

PowerPoint At GM: How Slideshow Culture Buries Critical Information (And Costs Lives)

People are Dying.002

You’ve probably heard the phrase “death by PowerPoint,” but didn’t take it literally. No one has ever died because of PowerPoint, right? Think again. It may have happened–but probably not the way you imagined.

A post from Joseph B. White on wallstreetjournal.com asks whether General Motors’ corporate culture of over-reliance on PowerPoint presentations is responsible for their current recalls, safety scandal and, ultimately, the deaths of customers. As White explains, slideshows are a pervasive part of GM’s communications:

References to PowerPoint and “slide decks” show up throughout former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas’s brutal, 315-page dissection of how GM executives failed to act on evidence of deadly defects in its cars. There’s a good reason. Lengthy slide presentations have been a substitute for meaningful communication at GM since before Microsoft’s ubiquitous PowerPoint software was invented.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, company executives would lull outside directors with slide shows about their strategies to boost sales and stop growing losses in the U.S. operations – until the directors woke up as the company veered toward collapse in 1992, ousted the top management and promoted a new team committed to…changing the corporate culture.

One of the problems with relying on PowerPoint to convey critical facts or ideas that are uncertain is that the people who write these presentations often create so many slides with so many bullets that it’s hard to tell what’s important. Viewers who need to understand what’s going on would usually be better off with a written report that analyzes and distills the issues at stake instead of a barrage of bullets that are, ultimately, forgettable:

In one example of the numbing barrage of slides that obscured important information about safety risks, the Valukas report says that in March 2009, as GM was sliding toward its government-led bankruptcy, former GM CEO Rick Wagoner “may have viewed” a 72-slide presentation that mentioned, in a “back-up slide,” a change in the design to the Chevrolet Cobalt’s key that replaced a slot for attaching key rings to a small hole.

Now, of course, it’s clear those complaints were a vital clue to a grave issue. If the switch turned off just before a crash, there would be no power to the airbags, and no power assist for steering and brakes. GM now connects 13 deaths to the defect; lawyers for victims say the number is much higher.

In any case, Mr. Valukas’s report states that Mr. Wagoner doesn’t recall reviewing “any part of the slide deck.”

It’s just too easy to stop paying attention when you’re presented with such a huge amount of information (72 slides worth) that doesn’t highlight what’s really critical (like fatalities caused by something as seemingly innocuous and easy to fix as the design of a hole in a key). Why, you have to wonder, were references to deadly accidents relegated to backup slides and kept out of those shown to executives? No one at GM seems to know:

 An engineer who’d been investigating the problem presented PowerPoint slides – but apparently didn’t discuss “backup” slides that made reference to five deaths and some serious injuries.

The report details confusion among the engineers and executives over what was in the slides, which slides were presented and which were not.

One engineer told Mr. Valukas he did present the slide. Three other executives at the meeting said they didn’t recall fatalities being discussed. Others who attended the meeting said they didn’t learn about the deaths until later.

Alicia Boler-Davis, GM’s senior vice president for quality and a member of the committee, told investigators that “backup slides” to presentations usually aren’t distributed or presented, but that death and injury data “should always be included” in a discussion of a proposed recall.

Ms. Boler-Davis also told investigators “that had she known at the time of the December 17, 2013 EFADC meeting that fatalities were involved, she would have treated the issue with more urgency.”

You would certainly think that fatalities would be included in such a briefing. In his post White wonders:

What if someone had simply stood up, without a visual prop, and said: “People are dying.”

But there’s another cultural problem at GM that also seems to be responsible for allowing this scandal to grow. And evidence for it is also found in one of GM’s ubiquitous PowerPoint presentations. Looking at some of the actual slides that were released as part of a government order, it’s amazingly clear how employees were instructed to understate risks and how that policy could lead to disaster. These slides from a GM recall briefing show how their guidelines for writing internal documents–obviously intended to help protect the company from lawsuits–actually led them to avoid “emotional” words that would have helped highlight the importance of the problems they faced. Ultimately, this strategy increased the threat to GM itself and may have cost more lives.

GM Slides.001 GM Slides.002 GM Slides.003Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that over-reliance on PowerPoint has been implicated in failed communications that led to disaster. After the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, professor Edward Tufte conducted a study of NASA communications and filed a Freedom of Information Act request that included slides that had been used in briefings about the final flight. An article from Government Executive by Shane Harris describes how:

Among those he received were three briefings to NASA senior managers by contract engineers with the Boeing Co. about possible damage to Columbia’s wing, caused by impact with foam debris.

Tufte was aghast. The slides were a muddle of banner headings and bullet points. Important findings were buried in subheadings. Information in data tables was squished into tight cells, making it hard to read. The engineers wrote in a mishmash of acronyms and parenthetical notes that didn’t clearly convey that Columbia was in danger.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Tufte recalls. So he posted the slides on the Internet.

The members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board couldn’t believe it either. Their final report cited Tufte’s analysis and excoriated NASA for favoring slides over prosaic explanations.

The investigators singled out one slide that proved pivotal in the failure of NASA executives to grasp Columbia’s jeopardy. It is classically bad PowerPoint, a “festival of bureaucratic hyper-rationalism,” Tufte writes. It contains six levels of hierarchy: A banner title followed by a big bullet point, a dash, a diamond and a little bullet point to denote subpoints, and finally, a set of parentheses.

“It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation,” the Columbia investigators wrote. “The board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of communication at NASA.”

PowerPoint slides aren’t usually a matter of life and death. (In fact, a huge number of presentations don’t seem to have any reason to exist at all). But these examples of catastrophic results have a lot to teach us about how relying too much on PowerPoint can obscure what’s really important.

Instead of using slides as a container for vast amounts of data, in the place of a complex report, or as a script for a speech, try to use them as they were meant to be used–as the visual aids that accompany a presentation instead of the whole thing. Try to keep them simple in order to make the biggest impact.

After all, a slide that says “People are Dying” is pretty clear.

Every Meeting Needs An Agenda (But Maybe Not An Agenda Slide)

DSC04780I was happy to see this blackboard welcoming guests to the wedding reception for my friends Sarah and Joey because it illustrates one of the most important rules for any meeting, presentation, or formal gathering. They all need to have an agenda. You don’t want to leave your guests in the dark about what your meeting is about, why they’ve been invited, or when the food trucks are going to start serving dinner. Otherwise people may feel anxious, annoyed, or cranky from their low blood sugar.

That doesn’t mean your agenda has to be a formal document that’s distributed in advance (though that’s often best). Agendas can take many forms, including a few bullet points in a calendar invitation, an overview of goals and topics to be discussed at the opening of a meeting, or a brief outline written on a whiteboard at the front of a conference room. An entirely appropriate agenda might just exist in the head of the meeting planner. But all meetings need to have an agenda in order to keep them on track and make sure they have a legitimate reason for happening. As a general rule, the more important the meeting, the more important it is to have a formal agenda and share it with attendees to make sure that everyone’s goals are being met.

Unfortunately, too many meetings don’t have an agenda at all. Some meeting organizers are just bad planners and think they’ll wing it, while others don’t like the structured formality of a written agenda. But the most frequent excuse I hear–by far–is that writing an agenda and distributing it in advance takes too much time. Of course this idea is terribly short-sighted. Creating a good agenda allows you to use the time you and your co-workers spend in meetings much more efficiently, and should even allow you to cancel the meetings that you really don’t need to have.

Agreeing that every meeting should have an agenda, that it’s shared in advance, and that it’s used to make sure the meeting stays on track is probably the single-most effective thing you can do to improve the productivity of your workplace. Have you ever sat through an entire meeting wondering why you’d been invited? Have you been to a weekly status meeting where no one had anything new to report? Chances are no one had taken the time to write agendas for those meetings. If you find that you or the people you work with are having a hard time coming up with agendas, it might be time to start thinking about whether you should be having those meetings at all. Cancel them instead and use the time you reclaim to actually get some work done.

What you might not always want to do is include an agenda slide in your presentations. An agenda slide can be a great tool to give attendees a quick idea of what they’re going to hear, but many presenters wind up spending so much time explaining their agenda slides that they effectively give their presentation twice, once when they talk about the agenda, then again as they read through their slides. Few things are more boring for an audience. If you can give your entire presentation just by discussing an agenda slide, consider doing it that way. Your audience will appreciate it.

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

The Other Prism Scandal: Ugly Slides

prism-slide-1

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

Visual Aids: Make An Emotional Connection

Arrest Development--Tobias

I love Netflix’s posters for the resurrected series Arrested Development because they do a great job of showing how you can convey a complicated idea–or in this case a character–with a simple image. Fans of the series will immediately recognize the posters for each of their favorite characters.

You may not be able to find an appropriate way to work a pair of Daisy Dukes into your presentations, but anchoring your ideas with clever images is an incredibly effective strategy. For one thing, images are much more memorable than words themselves. Audience members will remember a picture you show them much longer than they’ll remember any of your bullet points.

But images also allow you to connect with an audience’s emotions in a way that’s difficult to do with words alone. Arrested Development fans are likely to react to these posters in several ways. First, they’ll laugh. They’ll remember how much they love the show. Then they’ll enjoy feeling clever for understanding the references in the pictures.

If you can accomplish any of these things in your own presentations you’re doing great. Of course your images need to be relevant (and appropriate!) to your message. And they need to look good, which can be a lot of work. But the payoff can be huge. People love to be entertained, and they love the accomplishment they feel when they have to make a little effort to figure something out. Human beings are born problem solvers, and who doesn’t like to feel smart? Even better, a live audience will transfer their good feelings to you as the speaker and be more likely to be persuaded by your ideas.

Instead of just loving your images, they may love you.

Arrested Development Character Posters

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).