Saturday, September 01, 2007

Death by Powerpoint (the rant continues)

What do you mean you don't use PowerPoints...?

Hunkering down in my comfy chair with a steaming cuppa tea last night to re-read The Forgotten Half of Change: Achieving Greater Creativity through Changes in Perception by Luc de Brabandere, I smiled when I remembered how much I enjoyed the opening page the first time I read it. Seems Bill Gates was coming to Brussels and the head of Microsoft Belgium had organized a conference meeting with a thousand users and customers. Luc, a rock star in the consulting world, was going to be a presenter and would introduce Bill to the gathered throng. The evening before the conference, the MS Belgium head called, and it didn't go well...for him:

"You've forgotten to send the slides of your presentation, and Bill Gates would like to see them," said the head of Microsoft Belgium.

My reply was immediate: "Most people in Belgium and France know full well that I never use slides. I prefer to practice the art of oratory as was done in old times. I've got clear ideas and I'm ready for my presentation tomorrow."


" have no slides?"

"No," I said for the second time. "The spoken work and the written word are two different things. I use both but I never mix them. I give speeches, and I write books. The ideas are the same, but the way I express them is different. When I speak, it's in real time. When I write, it's in delayed time--it's as if I were someone else."


(Note to Self: be sure to post something on the book later. It's a wonderful example of how to use powerful questions to shape better enterprises and expand creativity and innovation.)

The death of communication as we know it

We can all agree that in the 20 years since Bob Gaskins and Dennis Austin sold their little program to Microsoft, business presentations (hell, all presentations) have become an endless testimony to our inability to communicate ideas that matter in ways that stick. They've become a horribly emotionless mashup of incomprehensible text, pictures, fades and spinning text than set dogs a-howling and babies crying.

They “suck rotten eggs” as Seth Godin points out in his e-book. But as the good people at Presentations Zen say:

"This is largely so because people do not know (or don’t care about) the difference between a well-written document and well-designed supporting visuals. PowerPoint users usually shoot for the middle and create a slideument, a “document” that would make your third-grade English teacher apoplectic with disgust and shame that you ever attended her class, and draw scowls of disapproval from anyone who makes a living as a designer or visual communicator."

A slidument to call my very own...mother would be proud

At this point, I remembered a strategic staffing course I took in B-School--a team project (which meant the strongest players did all of the work) which culminated in a presentation. We were graded on the PowerPoint presentation and I can remember the completely blank look on the prof's face when I suggested that we may not have any PowerPoints at all--that PowerPoint may not be the most effective way to communicate our ideas. He was horrified. Well, we did have PowerPoints and the prof suggested we turn in our slides for a grade. To make certain that he had all of our commentary on the slides (we didn't want to chance his memory), I added an extensive comments section to each slide as well as a slide for our bibliographical references, which generate a huge printed slidument.

It was painful, but informative the way we've commonly expected PowerPoint slides to be created. We got the highest grade for our work, but still.

Solid ideas trump pretty PowerPoints

Godin challenges us to create presentations instead of PowerPoints, working to be sure that our ideas are solid, rather than ensuring that our slides are clever. He promotes

  • No more than six words on a slide. EVER. There is no presentation so complex that this rule needs to be broken.
  • No cheesy images. Use professional stock photo images.
  • No dissolves, spins or other transitions.
  • Sound effects can be used a few times per presentation, but never use the sound effects that are built in to the program. Instead, rip sounds and music from CDs and leverage the Proustian effect this can have. If people start bouncing up and down to the Grateful Dead, you’ve kept them from falling asleep, and you’ve reminded them that this isn’t a typical meeting you’re running.
  • Don’t hand out print-outs of your slides. They don’t work without you there.

A few years ago, I started simplifying my PowerPoint presentations, first by putting together the presentation and then deciding how best to communicate my ideas. I find I tend to work best when I can see the white of my audience's eyes and combine discussion, presentation, stories and drawn representations. Immediately, that meant cutting my number of PowerPoints in half...and then, actually talking with the people who came to hear me speak.

Novel idea, that.

I'm not quite done with this topic. There's the issue of Pecha Kucha that I want to get into. I'll save that for another time. Looks like an interesting way to put Godin's exhortations to good use.


Matt said...

Great post. I spend a ton of time putting together presentations...yes, via PowerPoint. I focus not only on what I want to say while each slide is up...but also on knowing what slide is next. I will re-think this approach in the future. Thanks!