4 November 2010

The cost of PowerPoint presentations wastes the UK economy even more than I thought

In an attempt to work out out how much boring presentations were costing the UK economy, I came up with the figure of £7.8 billion a year (HERE).

I was aware that this was probably a serious underestimate of the actual wastage, as it was based entirely on the estimated salary cost per hour of audiences listening to such presentations, and took no account of the time spent preparing slides, hiring venues, audience travel costs getting there and back, tea, coffee, meals, accommodation, etc.

But a recent news story highlights yet further costs that I missed in my earler estimate: management consultants McKinsey & Co were paid £500,000 for a report on the Welsh National Health Service described as 'a compilation of slides', an 'appalling waste' and 'the most expensive PowerPoint presentation ever' (at £6,500 per slide) - for more on which, see HERE).

PowerPoint pioneers?
Although I noted in a recent post that I'm beginning to think that the PowerPoint problem is getting worse, with more and more companies and organisations trying to kill more and more birds with one stone (HERE), what intrigued me about this particular story was that the alleged culprits were top management consultants.

Such companies were not only among the first I ever saw using PowerPoint to collapse two key communicational tasks (written detail + spoken summary) into one, but were also completely resistant to any news or advice about how audiences react to such presentations, let alone how they could improve things.

They know best
On one occasion, I did my best to explain all the obvious problems for speakers and listeners during presentations like theirs - and made the equally obvious point that readers find slides made up of shorthand sentences arrayed as bullet points far less readable than conventionally structured written prose.

"It would work much better" I ventured to suggest "if you got one of the recent MBA graduates on your staff to prepare a detailed written (and readable) report for the client, and then give a presentation to them summarising the main findings and recommendations, and doing so in way as to motivate them to read the detailed material for themselves afterwards."

"Oh no" came back the reply. "That would take far too much time."

The real costs
I remember being amazed by the thought that the cost of this alternative approach would be a miniscule fraction of the daily rates the company was charging their clients - and that the gains being missed out on by both parties were potentially immense.

The news that one such company has just inflicted 80 slides on a public sector client at a cost of £6,500 per slide suggests that, 20 years later, little has changed.

It also points to a serious omission from my original calculation of the annual loss to the UK economy from boring presentations as a mere £7.8 billion and points to an important question that I'd failed to take into account:

How much a year are UK companies and organisations wasting on paying other companies and organisations to have their staff bored, baffled and bewildered by slide-dependent presentations?

Further research is clearly needed...


Anonymous said...

Is the slumberer you? DSA

Max Atkinson said...

No. Looks like he's got a rather better head of hair than me!

Alan said...

What do you think of 'RSA Animate' as a medium for presentation?

If the two key communications tasks in standard Powerpoint presentations are spoken summary and a record of written detail, it strikes me that RSA Animate may not be suitable for recording written detail but may be a great way to enhance verbal summary. And on that basis it could be a useful accompaniment to speeches more generally too (although I'd be interested to know how much you would agree with that?)

I'm disregarding the practicality or cost of hiring an animator for every presentation that needs to be created, but at least RSA Animate does show how much better visual support for a verbal summary or speech can be than is normally possible when using Powerpoint.

Here are some examples: http://comment.rsablogs.org.uk/videos/

Anonymous said...


It's not the medium it's the content. It's possible to do great stuff with PowerPoint (google Nancy Duarte for just one example of someone who knows how a slide deck can be used).

However, it is easier to churn out dross (with PowerPoint especially so, but with every presentation software to some degree) than it is to communicate something valuable.

It's also a cultural thing. Managers expect slides full of bullets, even if in the same breath they tell you how much they hate them. I wanted to present using a whiteboard for one meeting, because to my mind it was a better way to show how an idea built up from a central theme. I was told that if I didn't bring slides it would look like I hadn't prepared. (If my well-rehearsed whiteboard pitch had gone seamlessly, it wouldn't have occurred to anyone that preparation had played a part.) Face, as I believe the youngsters would have it, palm.

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