ALTOM: It's time to rethink reliance on PowerPoint presentations

December 5, 2009

The Chronicle of Higher Education had an article earlier this year by Jeffrey R. Young titled “When Computers Leave Classrooms, So Does Boredom.” The article prominently features José A. Bowen, who is dean of the Meadows School of the Arts, which is part of Southern Methodist University in Texas.

Dean Bowen has raised some eyebrows by asking his faculty to “teach naked.” It’s his cutesy way of saying, “Don’t use PowerPoint.” He believes slides shift the educational focus from reliance on the wits and wisdom of the instructor to the graphics and bullet points in the presentations. He contends that discussion is vital to the student and instructor both, and that, if anything, slides should provoke discussion, not replace it.

He’s right. The reason I care about Dean Bowen’s point is that I’m convinced working with clients or customers is much the same as working with students. Few of the people we serve know as much as we know about what we do, so we’re constantly educating them. But throwing factoids at them isn’t helping them make good decisions.

I’ve sat through too many PowerPoint presentations that were just rushed sprints from the overdecorated title slide to the final (and immensely welcome) “Questions?” slide, accompanied by a stunned silence as the audience’s minds struggle to catch up. It feels less like an exchange of knowledge than like being shot with a Gatling gun.

Ed Tufte of Yale University, an internationally renowned expert in graphical communications, despises “slideware” for business, because he believes it degrades the message, boiling complex ideas down into bumper sticker vapidity. Lou Gerstner, in his book, “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?” tells a story of his initial inspection tour as IBM’s CEO. The plant executives at his first stop plunked him down in front of a slide show. He got up and pointedly shut off the machine, saying, “Let’s just talk about your business.”

The fashion in slides today only increases my frustration with the software. There seems to be a strong preference for slides with puzzle pieces that represent complex systems, but don’t really explain how they fit together. Each puzzle piece has a color, which is supposed to key it to a concept, but the connection whizzes by as the presenter keeps talking.

And do they ever talk. I grit my teeth when I have to sit through a presentation where the person with the red-dot Laser Pointer of Power lets us see a slide for only a few precious seconds before barreling on to the next. Each slide contains enough material to fill several minutes of worthwhile conversation, but it’s not to be. We have slides to get through. Maybe the presenter needs to get to the bathroom. There still appears to be a mandate from PowerPoint fashionistas to use all the animation trickery the program can provide, with objects sailing into view from every angle. Too much, too fast, too self-conscious.

Slides work fine if they’re meant only to cue and remind. Bullet points should just be nudges in the ribs, keeping the speaker from forgetting specifics. Slides should be used to set the stage for a conversation. Show a slide or two, then raise a question. Wait for an answer, even if it’s, “We don’t know.” It’s a simple technique, but effective. I use it myself.

For example, in one recent “preso” to a client, I put together slide after slide of charts from his own data, but showing the data in ways he hadn’t done for himself, and possibly revealing things he hadn’t seen before. After each chart slide, I paused and asked, “Is this something you were already aware of?” If it was, we moved right along. If it wasn’t, I set the hand brake and we talked for a few moments. Customers are so often pummeled by PowerPoint in meetings that they’re usually grateful just to talk about what’s really on their minds, with the slides as background stimulus.

There are occasions when you’re not able to dialogue, as when you’re speaking at a conference. But those are rare compared with the opportunities to actually talk to your clients or customers about what ails them. Most speeches can do just fine without slides, too. It’s remarkable what happens when a speaker shuts off the machine and relies on rhetoric alone. The focus shifts and the mind digs a little deeper. You can’t depend on the slides to shortcut the speaker’s points. You have to listen to them. And in business, both sides benefit from listening closely.

Business is, at base, mostly about giving customers what they desperately want. When the software gets in the way of that conversation, it’s time to rethink how it’s being used.•


Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.


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