The New York Times ran a great article yesterday — great, because I agree with so much of it — called “We have Met the Enemy and He is PowerPoint.” Read it here.
(My book Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint, which was published last year, addresses some of the same concerns. Read more about it here.)
The article raises issues about how PowerPoint is used in the military (and, by extension, everywhere else). These are the three main problems I’ve picked out of the article:
- It is a poorly used presentation tool. When it is poorly used — that is, most of the time — PowerPoint produces some of the most confusing and boring presentations imaginable. That’s for two reasons.
First, presenters don’t think through their presentations. They don’t analyze their audience, establish a goal, create a logical and persuasive structure, select the most telling evidence, and create a clear message. They don’t consider what other types of support material — like handouts or white papers or demonstrations — might better help them communicate their message. They simply turn on PowerPoint and begin “populating slides.” They then read the slides to their audience, inevitably speeding up at the end of their presentations because they’ve run out of time. They print up PowerPoint notes as pre-reading material, as handouts, and as leave-behinds.
And second, presenters don’t even use well the one thing PowerPoint is good for — projecting images. They create confusing graphics (like the one pictured above), charts and graphs that can’t be read (have you ever tried to decipher a spread sheet imported directly from Excel?), endless lists of bullet points or, worse, entire paragraphs of text.
- It is the wrong presentation tool to use.The real problem with PowerPoint, to my thinking, isn’t that it’s so poorly used so frequently. (It is poorly used more times than not.) The real problem is that, even when relatively well used, it dumbs down most presentations.
PowerPoint makes it hard — not impossible, but hard — to present complex material and sophisticated ideas. You cannot present the same amount of detail on a slide that you can on a hand out, for example. Complex thought, which isn’t the same thing as complicated or confusing thought, requires you to string together a lot of material in a coherent and meaningful argument. The connections are what matter, the way information is ordered and tied together. PowerPoint allows, even encourages, you to present discrete bits of information without needing to make any connections. You can simply show a slide, talk about it, and say “next slide.” You don’t have to show how the information on one slide leads logically to the information on the next slide. You can present a succession of slides — tons of information — without giving your audience any sense of what it all adds up to.
PowerPoint’s best feature — its ability to project images — is also one of its greatest flaws. Images can be problematic, because they can impede reflection and deep thinking. We can see something — the photographs from Abu Ghraib prison, for example — and think we understand what is being shown and what it means. And when we see a rapid succession of images, especially if they’re powerful or visually stimulating images, we are even less likely to probe their meaning and implications.
- It is time consuming and costly.
To avoid the errors associated with my first point above — the poor use of PowerPoint — you have to spend a fair deal of time and energy on creating each presentation.There are some great PowerPoint Presentations out there. (Go to TED: Ideas Worth Spreading for examples of how to use PowerPoint in a way that will blow your audiences away.) If every PowerPoint presentation were as well designed and rehearsed, you wouldn’t hear people talking about “death by PowerPoint.” But imagine how much time, energy, expertise, and money goes into producing those great presentations. Do you have that many resources available to you?
What do you think?