It's just over a year since the BBC website magazine invited me to write a short piece on The Problem with PowerP0int to mark the 25th anniversary of its invention.
It didn't include some of the points made in my book Speech-making and Presentation Made Easy about why the slide-dependent presentation has become so firmly established as the 'industry-standard model' in so many companies and organisations - even though there's so much about it that turns audiences off.
Reasons why it became entrenched included the following (pp. 59-60):
• Ease and convenience
One of the great attractions of the slide-driven approach was that it offered an easy way of appearing to be prepared and professional. The mere fact that you had some slides to show was enough in itself to qualify it as a ‘proper’ presentation in the eyes of audiences, who were increasingly conditioned to expect nothing else.
Large corporations seized on the prospect of imposing a uniform and consistent message across different presentations by issuing standardised sets of slides to their workforce. But it showed little or no sensitivity for the end consumers who were condemned to listen to the presentations.
When a global computer corporation was launching new products, its British company was so appalled by the amount of detail on the slides that they established a special group, whose job was to scrap them and design presentations for UK audiences from scratch.
• The ‘no notes’ illusion
Manufacturers of overhead projectors used to proclaim yet another alleged benefit of the acetate revolution: with our machines, you can speak without having to use any notes. This was an extraordinary claim on two counts. Actually, they didn’t free people from using notes: all that happened was that speakers stopped glancing down at their notes and started looking at the screen to find out what to say next.
Note also the apparent belief that there was something wrong or shameful about being seen to be using notes. This ignored a rather obvious fact: in all traditions of public speaking, whether preaching, lecturing, political speechmaking or giving a best man’s speech at a wedding, it is, and always has been, perfectly normal for speakers to use notes.
• “Hard copy of slides available afterwards”
Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever been issued with such a pack will know, some sets go straight in the waste bin, and others are filed away, never to be seen again.
When I was writing that, one of the main problems was that PowerPointwas being widely used in a vain attempt to kill two birds with one stone (and not doing either very well):
- Notes for the presenter
- Summary reports on the presentation
If I were writing today, I would have to add a few more to the last of the headings above:
"Copies of slides available afterwards AND
- on the company intranet,
- on internal emailing lists,
- on corporate websites*
- and anywhere else you can think of posting them"
This is because more and more of my clients are trying to use a single PowerPoint presentation to do more and more communicational jobs.
"Yes," they say, "we know that very detailed slides make for horrendous presentations, but there's nothing we can do about it: our directors have decreed that PowerPoint slides have to be provided both as 'pre-reads' (a new word, destined no doubt for the Oxford English Dictionary) for the audience, and as information to go on the record for the benefit (?) of others in, and sometimes outside, the organisation."
- Never mind all the problems for speakers and audience of endless lists of bullet points.
- Never mind how much information-overload they inflict on audiences or how little anyone will take in, let alone remember.
- Never mind the fact that bullet points and/or lists of sentences don't convey much to readers who didn't hear the presentation in the first place.
- Never mind the fact that proper prose is much easier to read and much more intelligible than lists and disjointed sentences.
- Never mind if we can pretend that we're successfully achieving numerous communication objectives at a single stroke.
But what's the point of it all if these single strokes are doomed to fail on every front?
The $64,000 questions no one ever dares to ask
- How much damage is this doing to our corporate objectives?
- How much is all this wasted time costing us?
God knows what the answer is to the first of these. But I did have a go at calculating an answer to the second one a few years ago (HERE):
If a company employs 200 managers at an average salary of 30,000 p.a., and each of them spends an average of one hour per week at presentations ... the annual cost to the company will be £178,000. Grossed up, the estimated cost to British industry as a whole comes to a massive £7.8 billion a year.
That calculation was almost certainly an underestimate, as it only took into account the salary cost of those actually attending presentations. Not included were the costs of time spent by presenters preparing their slides, travel, venue hire, refreshments, accommodation, etc.
The growing cost of trying to kill more birds with one stone
My experience of running courses over the past year or two suggests that the problems associated with the industry-standard model of presentation are getting worse than I'd thought when I finished writing Lend Me Your Ears six years ago.
We seem to be entering a world in which 'Death by PowerPoint' is becoming 'Holocaust by Powerpoint'.
Slides are becoming busier and more bewildering than ever, as more and more companies require their staff to use them for a myriad of different purposes (simultaneously) - without ever bothering to stop and ask how effectively any of these purposes are actually being achieved.
As a result, the billions of pounds, dollars and euros being poured down the drain by Western economies must be far greater than the estimates I came up with only a few years ago.
(* P.S. For training purposes, I admit to being rather grateful that so many companies proudly display their PowerPoint presentations on their websites, as it provides an endless and readily accessible supply of awful slides for illustrating the worst excesses to participants on my courses).
Other posts on using visual aids
- PowerPoint and the demise of Chalk & Talk (1) The beginning of the end
- PowerPoint and the demise of Chalk & Talk (2) The lost art
- PowerPoint and the demise of Chalk & Talk (3) Glimmers of hope
- A Nobel prize winner's view on slides versus 'chalk & talk'
- Showing what you mean: more from Professor Sir Lawrence Bragg
- PowerPoint program on BBC Radio 4
- BBC Television News slideshow quiz
- How NOT to use PowerPoint
- If Bill Gates doesn’t read bullet points from PowerPoint slides …
- An imaginative innovation in a PowerPoint presentation
- PowerPoint presentation continues to dominate BBC News – courtesy Robert Peston (again)
- Slidomania contaminates another BBC channel
- There’s nothing wrong with PowerPoint – until there’s an audience
- BBC Television News: produced by of for morons?
- PowerPoint comes to church