The phrase “Death by PowerPoint” is usually taken to mean a long, boring, un-engaging presentation using too many, too dense PowerPoint slides That is not the aspect of “Death by PowerPoint” I want to get into in this post.
Edward Tufte wrote famously about a different aspect of “Death by PowerPoint” in his treatise on the limitations of PowerPoint’s cognitive style and the implications for the quality and credibility of technical reports delivered by PowerPoint. He applied his insightful analysis to the ill-fated flight of the Columbia space shuttle in 2003, and the flawed presentation of the analysis of a crucial video of the wing being penetrated by a piece of foam. That is also not the aspect of “Death by PowerPoint” I want to get into here.
How PowerPoint is Sapping Productivity, Energy, Creativity and Engagement
No, the “Death by PowerPoint” I want to get into here is the sheer madness I see in many of my consulting clients. As an example, I spoke with a Business Relationship Manager recently who has to make a presentation to a business-IT governance board once per month. It turns out he, in collaboration with several colleagues, spends much of the 3 weeks leading up to the monthly meeting working on the PowerPoint presentation! When I probed this further, I learned that many of the IT managers spend much of their time fine tuning, tweaking and making their presentations look pretty and professional.
When I asked if executives or the corporate culture demand this, I got a quizzical look – I’m not sure that question had ever been asked before, but on reflection he told me, “That’s very much the culture around here – an executive presentation has to look highly polished. It’s a question of quality and respect for senior executives.”
Do Hours Upon Hours of Presentation Polishing Create Quality?
I’m sure that Robert Pirsig (author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila) would have something insightful to say about this, as would Edward Tufte, Edwards Deming and just about anyone else who has ever thought seriously about the nature of quality. Polishing a presentation ad nauseum typically does not improve quality, and may in fact detract from it, as while cute graphics may be arresting to the eye, they often detract from facts and key points.
I’ve worked with clients where PowerPoint was to all intents and purposes banned. If you had a presentation to give, you were expected to do so with a flip chart or white board. One of these clients had arrived at this policy after doing a rough calculation on what it was costing the company each year in labor for people to work on all these presentations.
Do Executives Expect Hours to be Spent Polishing Presentations?
I don’t know the answer to this, but I have a strong suspicion the answer would be a firm, “NO!” They want accurate facts, clearly presented. They want analysis and recommendations. They want to know what decisions are needed from them, to understand the consequences of alternatives and to be armed with the information to make the best decision. They would be very pleased to know that their resources are spending time collecting the facts, formulating recommendations, clarifying decisions to be made and their consequences, and providing pertinent information. They would not be thrilled to know how much time goes into “polishing” and “tweaking” to make presentations look professional.
How To Break the Habit?
First, I think there are many excellent techniques for creating better, shorter presentations. I personally LOVE the work by Barbara Minto and her Pyramid Principle. Her techniques are relatively easily learned and applied, and get to the real issues of effective communication. There are many books about effective presentations, use of charts, and so on, but I think its really about getting crisp around the issues to be addressed, the salient facts presented intelligently, and some semblance of the Scientific Method to draw conclusions, ask for decision or action, or achieve some other specific outcomes.