Eliminating PowerPoint sins

I sat through a veritable blizzard of PowerPoint at TEC 2011 EMEA in Frankfurt last week. I don’t think my own contribution to the slide festival was too bad until I read an article on the CIO Update web site entitled “Top 10 Reasons to Dump PowerPoint”. At this point I realized that many of the points covered in the article applied to all of the presentations from the Frankfurt event as well as those from every other conference that I have attended in the last ten years. With the DevConnections conferences in Last Vegas next week it’s time to change and that’s what I have been doing over the last few days – taking a new look at how I project thoughts through PowerPoint.

The Microsoft technical community take a lot of guidance from Microsoft. (in passing, I know that the wisdom and depth of this particular remark will have stunned many readers) I don’t mean technical knowledge, documentation, and software as those are the essential elements of the relationship that we have with the Redmond behemoth. Rather, I mean the way that PowerPoint is used to communicate information about technology. In this respect I think that TechEd must take a lot of the blame because it has become an event where in-depth technical information is often hidden beneath layers of branding, graphic formatting according to Microsoft corporate rules, and overly wordy slides. And because it’s good enough for Microsoft, the style used at TechEd finds itself duplicated and reused by other companies around the planet.

Just look at some of the slide templates that are in use today. When I worked at HP there were many jokes about the graphical intensity and richness of the corporate PowerPoint presentation. So much so that the Exchange administrators despaired when mailboxes swelled and connectors collapsed under the weight of bloated decks created using the 3MB-plus corporate template. A deck containing 10 slides of two bullets each inherited an array of corporate images thoughtfully included in the template just in case anyone wanted to demonstrate their artistic side. You could argue that a major source of profit for HP is in printer supplies and that graphically intense decks are a sure way of expending ink at a horrendous rate but in fact no conspiracy to force the world to increase orders for printer supplies was in place. It was simply a matter of how the templates were built and how images were incorporated into the slide masters.

HP isn’t the only company that splatters graphics everywhere in an attempt to project “brand image”. I see the same approach being taken time after time by other companies. Few corporate branding schemes are particularly pleasing to the eye, at least in my mind, as they tend to distract from the essential content that presenters need to leave with the audience. But we must have our logos and use the corporate font – because it is deemed that this is a good thing to do.

Getting back to the article from CIO Update, I liked the following points:

  • PowerPoint trains the audience not to take notes. How true – people do ask for copies of decks after presentations rather than going through the bother of taking notes during the talk. You might argue that this leaves a listener better able to pay attention to the presentation. I say that it gives them more time to look at their iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, laptop, tablet, or whatever other buzzing device demands their attention while a presenter speaks. And how often is a deck actually looked at after an event? Maybe it provides evidence that someone was actually at a presentation (at least in body, if not in mind), but do people take the deck and annotate it to add their own view of a topic?
  • PowerPoint trains a presenter to be lazy. Ah yes, the joy of listening to a presenter reading text off slides. This is sometimes valuable when I don’t bring my glasses and sit at the back of a room but it’s otherwise an indication that the speaker really doesn’t understand their material and isn’t able to provide background information and in-depth data that would make the presentation valuable.
  • Many PowerPoint presenters batter their audience with a landslide of just bad slides. Too many words, small text, incomprehensible graphics, images grabbed from a web site or a book that are blurred, too many slides, repetitive thoughts… all very satisfying to the presenter if not to their audience. But then again, if the audience is heads-down looking at their favorite devices, does it really matter what gets projected on-screen?
  • I especially like the last piece of advice: “go naked”. In other words, make a presentation without slides. In reality, I think that this would probably cause complaints at the kind of technical conferences that Windows IT Pro readers might attend, if only because there’d be the slight suspicion that the presenter is making everything up on the fly (plus you don’t have a deck to bring back to the office to prove how hard you had to work to understand such technical material).

I confess that I have made all of the mistakes outlined in the article. It’s time to change. I have therefore taken the keynote presentation that I am scheduled to give at 8AM on November 2 and worked it over to reduce the number of slides, eliminate text, and make the deck more interesting. I definitely won’t get through the session by reading the slides. The big question now is whether anyone notices the difference. I shall let you know after the event.

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