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

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Don’t gorge yourself on slides: Remember that PowerPoint isn’t your only tool

Sony’s leaked PowerPoint slides are bad (but probably not worse than what you’re used to)

Recent hacking attacks on Sony Pictures unveiled a huge amount of material that the company would prefer to have kept secret. Employee passwords and Social Security numbers. Executive salaries (and the fact that men in the same jobs make much more than women). Pre-release copies of that Annie remake that no one is clamoring for. And evidence that even major entertainment companies with huge marketing departments routinely crank out awful PowerPoint slides.

I’m really not surprised that these slides are so bad. I always ask my clients for examples of the slides they see in their workplaces and, in general, they’re pretty bad. But the clients are aware of that–it’s why they’ve hired me to help them. The good news is that a little bit of effort can make a huge difference in the quality of your presentations, and people are so used to bad presentations that the good ones really stand out.

If you’ve somehow been operating under the delusion that your workplace is the only one plagued by bad PowerPoint, you may find these slides oddly comforting.

Spiderman

Take the example above. Sure, it looks decent, mainly because the studio had access to the Spider-Man image (this is one of the rare instances where artwork like this isn’t pirated). But what’s the slide about? I’d guess that this is part of a presentation on potential marketing tie-ins for Spider-Man 2, but what do gas stations have to do with Spider-Man? Or travel? And what the heck is QSR? A quick google leads me to believe it stands for “Quick Service Restaurant,” but why hide behind the confusing acronym? Why not just call it “fast food?” In the end this slide just looks like a somewhat random collection of nouns.

Smurfs

But my favorite (meaning the worst) of the slides is this one for The Smurfs. Anyone trying to sell Smurfs as something that teenagers are excited about is facing an uphill battle, but putting words like funny, cool, and humor in quotes makes me think that they are being used ironically to indicate that Smurfs are none of those things–the same way that a tofu “burger” is not a burger. I used to think the same thing about a Thai restaurant in my neighborhood that put out a sign advertising “lunch.” If it’s not lunch, I always wondered, what is it?lunch copyAside from that, it’s just an unattractive slide. There’s too much white space at the bottom (were they trying to avoid the Smurf graphic?), the bullets seem unnecessary, and abbreviating “international” is a strange choice that makes it harder to read.

One of the most important goals any presenter should strive for is to make their message so clear that it feels undeniably true, and this slide doesn’t manage to do that. But then again, I was probably never going to believe Smurfs were cool.

More Sony Slides on Gawker

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.

How PowerPoint Is Ruining Teaching: Learning Bad Habits Young

NTEC.001

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 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 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