PowerPoint: for and against

If PowerPoint has embedded itself so comprehensively in business culture, it must be doing something very right. So as a secret slideshow fan, I thought I’d try and address some of the objections commonly levelled at the dear old slidedeck.

 PowerPoint: for and against

Objection: Presentations should be about engaging people emotionally, not reading out a script

In his bestselling e-book Really Bad PowerPoint, marketing guru Seth Godin set out many of the classic criticisms of PowerPoint. Presenting is about storytelling and the ‘transfer of emotion’, he argued, whereas people tend to use slidedecks as an autocue.

CounterPoint: True, it’s dreadful when someone just reads out their slides – though no worse than if they just read out a script from a piece of paper. But a formal report can be a powerful communication tool too, done well, and I’m not sure that every work presentation requires a journey into ideas rather than, say, the development of a few intelligent points. In the rush towards emotion and storytelling, we sometimes seem to have forgotten the power of a well-reasoned argument.

Objection: Too many words, too many bullets!

One of Godin’s rules is ‘no more than six words per slide. Ever’. Rather than show a table of pollution levels, he says, show a dead bird instead. People connect with the power of the image at a visceral level, and there’s a moment of suspense where they wait for you to fill in the detail and explain the image’s context.

CounterPoint: There’s a lot in this, of course, but I can see a few contexts where the six-word rule won’t work. On our digital copywriting courses, for instance, we use lots of before-and-after examples to help attendees feel the difference between, say, feature-led and benefit-led text, concise and verbose writing, scannable and unscannable content. The slides illustrate or supplement the message, as Godin advocates, but the six-word rule would hinder rather than help the audience.

Further, the minimalist style of picture-led presenting is itself veering towards self-parody in some quarters, with presenters seemingly choosing wacky images first and then trying to retrofit their point.

Objection: PowerPoint is the triumph of style over substance

It’s often argued that PowerPoint can distort or commoditise thinking by forcing us to shoehorn everything we need to say into superficial sets of sales pitch-style bullets, each exactly a slide long.

CounterPoint: By forcing people to think in modular units (slides) and sub-units (bullets), and making it easy for them to divide those units into coherent sections which – thanks to slide sorter – can be seen as a whole and easily moved around, PowerPoint can actually help people add more structure and logic to their presentations. 

Similarly, quite a few of our clients prefer responses to pitches and reports to be delivered in PowerPoint rather than Word, because it forces people to think more structurally and write more economically. Screenshots can be annotated, and of course the slides are easy for the client to drop into their own presentation.

Objection: PowerPoint dumbs down information

In his polemic, PowerPoint does Rocket Science, Edward Tufte argued that PowerPoint was a contributory factor in the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, because it became central to a corporate culture in NASA which favoured slidedecks over technical reports. While experts debated the detail of the incident by email among themselves, the C-level only saw slidedecks summarising the issues.

The higher up the hierarchy the slidedecks travelled, the greater the tendency to downplay bad news or gloss over complexities. In this way, Tufte argued, a crucial bit of information that could have averted the disaster was overlooked.

CounterPoint: If correct, this is tragic, but it’s surely a failure of management rather than of software. The slidedeck should never have been allowed to become the vehicle for disseminating such crucial information when a perfectly fit-for-purpose format – the technical report – was already available.

Objection: PowerPoint is just a crutch

CounterPoint: What an awful idea, that anxious speakers should have something to lean on as they stand up and expose themselves to the cruel scrutiny of their peers! Public speaking phobia is a far more widespread phenomenon than confident speakers ever imagine. The only fix for nervous speakers is to get up there and start putting in the presentation hours. If PowerPoint helps them through, who can begrudge them?

Objection: Bad presenters just try to present their whole report

I’ve seen PowerPoint used to deliver speeches, presentations and training courses; to share the agenda of meetings and conference calls; to present the findings of reports; to deliver proposals and tenders, to capture follow-up actions from workshops; and even to plan out the contents of an e-book.

Some of these uses point to PowerPoint’s ability to create assets to be read and studied after the event, rather than presented in the flesh. This is something that the anti-slide movement always rails against.

CounterPoint: As the popularity of platforms like SlideShare demonstrates, people clearly find decks easy and useful to flick through. Also, in the real world it’s just not always practical to reduce your thoughts to a set of koan-like slides, each expressed with the perfect (rights-free) visual metaphor. Most people who use PowerPoint aren’t designers, and often don’t have the time or the resources to carry out lengthy picture research or draft a detailed handout to accompany their slides. Not every presentation is a keynote speech; down in the trenches of business-as-usual, sometimes a few slides with bullets is all that’s needed – or possible.

5 tips for better presentation design from David Bliss, presentation and slide design expert, Edison Red

  1. When using an image on a slide make sure you have a direct connection to it or, better still, you actually took it yourself. Images need to quickly illustrate something that may have otherwise taken a while to describe.
  2. Stick to a single idea on each slide. That way we are part of the journey and you are not giving away the plot.
  3. Create a consistent graphical flow – your own visual discipline. So if your images have white 5pt borders and drop shadows, stick with that style throughout.
  4. Don't concern yourself with how many slides you have but rather with what's on them. If you’re engaged as an audience member, you won't be counting the slides.
  5. Remember your slides are an extension of yourself – just like that Stella McCartney blouse or Don Draper suit. A top creative studio’s best designs will not improve a poor speaker and conversely a good speaker can be pulled down by bad slides.