Poor thing. PowerPoint has such a bad reputation. Let’s be fair. It’s deserved by some use cases rather than the tool itself. It’s time to set the record straight.
PowerPoint doesn’t kill meetings. People kill meetings. But using PowerPoint is like having a loaded AK-47 on the table: You can do very bad things with it.”Peter Norvig, Google Director of Research
Neurology of Powerpoint
Powerpoint is visual. However, when we are reading a slide, many other parts of our brain other than visual cortex get busy. For instance, temporal lobe is recalling our language constructs, the Broca’s area, found in the left frontal lobe is helping us comprehend, the angular and supra-marginal gyrus linking different parts of the brain is combining shapes to make words and so on. Remarkably, when we are actively listening, the same areas of our brain get busy. As a result, we can’t actively listen when we are trying to comprehend a slide!
“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.)
So, why does PowerPoint have such a poor repute?
Many presenters hide behind their slides.
Slides are so easy to create that some people take the easy way out. They cram powerpoint with information. They do not put in the hardwork necessary to practice presenting, or to effectively organise content, flow and visual aid. Instead, they dump the waste bins of raw information on the audience, and ramble through it. Many presenters succeed at this endeavour because we are simply trying to make sense of a bloated presentation and we hardly paid any attention to the speaking part. All in all, it was an experience that was only marginally better than going to the dentist.
I hate the way people use slide presentations instead of thinking. People would confront a problem by creating a presentation. I wanted them to engage, to hash things out at the table, rather than show a bunch of slides. People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint.Steve Jobs
Presenters and audiences get addicted to abstraction of ideas
The ease, ubiquity, corporate acceptance and ability to hide complexity is addictive. For instance, imagine that you need to make a crucial decision on your sales strategy. Armed with minimal preparation but extremely polished slides, a consultant pitches for a change in incentive structure. The slides and the presentation were successful but during the showmanship, the details that should have been taken into account were lost. Before you know it, organisations get used to compressing, over-simplifying and making decisions with slides and meetings as their preferred partner in crime.
Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.New York Times
Impaired human-to-human connection
Martin Luther King did not use a PowerPoint when he gave the “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln memorial in Washington D. C. He made a personal connection with millions of people, through his message, and his inspiring presence in a historic moment in time.
When you are presenting, non-verbal communication can really change the game. Your body language, timing, eye contact, gestures, pitch, and intonation can take your delivery from good to great. Slides however, create an invisible barrier between that and your audience. You simply don’t have the unwavering attention from them.
Moreover, our brains are predisposed to perceive visual input as reality. While this is simply conjecture on my part, I think using PowerPoint impairs critical reasoning in a group setting. For instance, you can dictate the agenda using PowerPoint. Once you have put it on a slide, everybody enters a virtual contract to follow that agenda. Rarely do people challenge it. Our limbic brains are telling us, if it’s written on a slide, it must be accepted. Imagine the impact it has on the quality of decision making.
“Many, many years ago, we outlawed PowerPoint presentations at Amazon,” Bezos said at the Bush Center’s Forum on Leadership in 2018. “And it’s probably the smartest thing we ever did.”CNBC
Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos banned it. Shouldn’t everyone follow suit?
I am not sure. It feels like the case of vilifying the messenger and ignoring the message. A tool can always be misused, including the mighty pen. PowerPoint is no exception. Apple, Amazon are iconic companies and it would be wise to learn a few things from them. I would advocate using “first principles” rather than imitating them.
So, how can we keep it real ?
PowerPoint is a visual aid. Keep it that way.
Imagine that you are giving a keynote about the City of San Francisco. A large projected backdrop of golden gate bridge adorns the stage. The audience, is captivated by your illustration of a homeless man, making his living scouring through trash. You talk about how homelessness is one of the biggest challenges facing the metropolis of paradoxes. A few engaging minutes later, and your presentation was not only captivating, but also it was impactful.
When we rely on PowerPoint to complement our delivery visually, it works wonders. As soon as you have an expectation that your audience will learn from your slides, you have missed a trick.Tweet
Long form writing is the anti-thesis of PowerPoint. It takes time, practice, mastery of the topic, richness of ideas, crafting of narratives, and most importantly, ability to identify connections and make inferences. This essay is an example of long-form (hopefully decent). It allows me to express the topic from many different dimensions. The comprehensiveness is uncanny of any other form of articulation.
Amazon replaced PowerPoint with a 6 page memo. ″[It] is harder for the author, but it forces the author to clarify their own thinking,” Jeff Bezos said at the Forum on Leadership. “It totally revolutionizes the way we do meetings at Amazon.”CNBC
Use extreme selection
Extreme selection is not a technique, it is a process. I use this term inspired by the theory of natural selection.
In this process, we allow natural variation in the forms of articulation we use. There is a wide selection – group discussions, group chats, silent meetings, dragon’s dens, AMA’s, town-halls, steering committees, forums, keynotes, to name a few!
In my view, we should experiment with these, determine what suits best and then inject these within your organisational processes. In other words, do not accept the PowerPoint as default.
For instance, imagine you want to prepare a charter for your team. You start by listing down all the things that your team is responsible for. You also list down all the things that your team would like to be doing. Try slides, or video interviews, perhaps fun live activities with people expressing their views. See what works best!!
Promote Silent meetings
A common issue during internal meetings is that participants are not prepared. An individual has prepared all the materials and they take everyone through their line of thinking without due regard for what the internal meeting is supposed to solve for. This causes wastage of time in simply bringing people upto speed. As a result, the possibility of a debate is very thin.
There is a solution. Silent meetings. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, starts meetings with silent reading and taking notes from Google docs. This allows for collaborative reading, and review. Any issues can be debated and solutions found. The level of detail is not lost either. Best part – no expectation that audience is prepared.
Most of my meetings are now Google doc-based, starting with 10 minutes of reading and commenting directly in the doc.Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter
Design meetings for interactivity
Cloud based collaboration tools have reached crazy levels of sophistication. I have used Figma, Miro, to name a few, and the ability to articulate ideas while allowing real time, asynchronous feedback loops, live commentary, chat, rich notifications is just incredible.
Even without using tech, using a whiteboard you can make a meeting interactive. Make use of what you’ve got. It will pay handsome dividends.