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

Just one thing….

We’re all so used to slides crammed with text, logos and ugly clip art that simplifying your visual aids can seem almost like a radical move.  But it can also be incredibly liberating.  For something different, try limiting each slide in your presentation to just one element– one image or one word.  (If you can’t quite work up the nerve to cut it down to one word, one sentence is OK too.)

I can almost guarantee that your audience will be impressed with how different your talk is from most of what they see.  And your performance is likely to improve, too.  Without the crutch of slides to use as a script to fall back on, you will

Simplify your slides

Simplify your slides

be forced to step into the spotlight and be the star of your show.  Sure, it sounds scary, but this is almost always a good thing.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you need a lot of slides with a lot of stuff on them in order to impress people with your work.  Realtors always tell people that if you want to sell your house, you need to de-clutter in order to make it seem appealing.  The same is true when you’re selling an idea.  Take out all the junk you don’t need and leave the best parts for people to admire.