Shortcomings of Powerpoint Presentations

For nearly six years I was a consultant at McKinsey and for another six I held corporate staff roles and marketing leadership roles.  In these twelve years, I did a lot of presenting.  By the end of those 12 years, I felt like I knew about functionality in PowerPoint that the guys in Redmond didn't know about.  But by the end of those 12 years, I had nearly abandoned Powerpoint as a medium and I avoid it like the plague today. 

The main reason is that I don't like to be a slave to my slides.  So many presenters become trapped by their slides, redefining the presentation as getting through the slides in a given amount of time rather than getting their message across.  Today, I like to present to people, looking them in the eye, without any other visual effects to take their attention away from me or my message.  I will use a flip chart or a computer projector from time to time - there is always a need to punctuate your points with data and charts and pictures, but I don't leave them up there after they have had their impact.  The projector goes off and focus is back on me and my message. 

At one company we made presentations using 2 or even 3 projectors
simultaneously, projecting multiple slides all at one time.  I remember
several key strategy presentations I gave using a hundred or more
slides.  Today, I know I could give those presentations better with
just 5 slides showing the key market research and cost data that drove
the decision, and then explaining the logic of our plan without any distractions behind me.

There is nothing I hate more than bulleted text slide after bulleted text slide.  There are only two possibilities from these slides:  Either they are easy to read, but then their message is so generic as to be meaningless; or they contain real content, making them hard to read in a presentation.  I prefer the latter, but save them for a leave behind that people can flip through after I am done.

Anyway, so much for my patented 20 minute semi-off-topic introduction to the real point of this post.  Via gongol.com comes this interesting analysis of how the use of PowerPoint might be affecting the quality of scientific presentations, and specifically looks at how PowerPoint may have impeded quality understanding of the risks that led to the Columbia accident.

Postscript: I must give credit where credit is due.  McKinsey takes the art of presentation very seriously, and did more for me than anyone in making me a good presenter of complex information, either in verbal or written form.  Their pyramid principal for writing was more useful to me than anything I learned in six years at Princeton and Harvard about the subject of communication.

  • http://entreblog.blogspot.com Mark Bigelow

    Great post. I'm totally with you on the complete lack of information transfer with Power Points. Edward Tufte (http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/) has a great website where he talks about the presentation of information and especially how Power Point is horrible.

    Incidentally, he teaches at Princeton and he said that at Princeton every meeting starts with handing out a sheet about the issues of the meeting and then 20 minutes of studying that sheet. I think that is pure genius.

  • http://polyscifi.blogspot.com Jody

    I've never understood this complaint with Powerpoint. Powerpoint makes neither bad presentations nor good presentations. Your idealized five slide presentation can also be done in Powerpoint.

    The problem that you are actually identifying is that Powerpoint is ridiculously easy to use. This has the effect that even bad presenters can now put together a presentation that looks passable, but instead obscures information.

    To modify a NRA phrase, Powerpoint doesn't make bad presentations, bad presenters make bad presentations.

  • Eric

    I couldn't agree more about Powerpoint, I think that another issue that has been overlooked is its negative impact on education. I am a recent college grad and from 1999-2003 I watched the quality of my professors' presentations gradually decline. There was a definate push by the school administration at the time to get the profs to use more and more powerpoint in class and this basically resulted in the prof just firing up the powerpoint and projector and reading every bulleted point on the slide for the entire class period. I always thought that, as a college student, my institution took it for granted that I was able to read for myself and didn't require an expert in my field with a doctorate to read slides to me. As powerpoint presentations came through the door, engaging discussions in the classroom went out the window. The most extreme example I can remember is a 300 level meteorology class in which the professor had literally scanned in every page from our textbook and read them to us page by page. I don't have his doctorate in meterology (I barely even have an understanding of it), but I feel positive that I could have taught that class better than he did. Computers have revolutionized almost everything that they've come into contact with, but this powerpoint thing is really out of hand.

  • http://polyscifi.blogspot.com Jody

    Again, Eric your issue is with the presenter, not Powerpoint. I've had many a class where instructors effectively read straight out of the book while only using chalk and chalkboards.

    They chose to give lazy presentations. Powerpoint didn't give the lazy presentations. The blame lies with the users of the tool, not the tool.

  • markm

    Jody, I think that the issue is that Powerpoint "enables" lazy presenters. If slides are hard to make, you first write the oral part of the presentation, then make slides only where a visual presentation will definitely work better. With Powerpoint, it is possible to just plunge in and start generating slides, and then wind up basically reading the slides because you never wrote or planned what you were going to say.

    Of course, the scanned-in textbook is not a powerpoint problem - you can do the same thing with a Xerox machine, a supply of clear plastic sheets, and an overhead projector. Also, part of the trouble with the NASA slides was that the presenters forgot their audience. Instead of organizing it for managers, with the most significant information in the most prominent place, they formed the heirarchy around the progress of the investigation, so the title was neutral and the most significant conclusion was in the finest print. It's possible to do that in a sentence and paragraph formatted report, too. Newspaper people call it, "burying the lede".

    I'm an engineer that often has to explain technical engineers to managers. I don't use PowerPoint. I follow a written or oral paragraph format with an introduction, body, and conclusion. The intoduction is one paragraph that briefly gives the conclusions and why they are important. The body shows how I worked through to the conclusion. The conclusion reinforces the introduction. Managers that are in a hurry will read just the introduction, or maybe the introduction and conclusion, and get the main message. If they want to get into the details, they are there, in between...