How many corporate birds can you kill with one PowerPoint presentation?

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.

• Standardisation
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):
  1. Notes for the presenter
  2. 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
  • beforehand,
  • 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
  1. How much damage is this doing to our corporate objectives?
  2. 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


Chris Witt said...

The quote you cite -- "our directors have decreed that PowerPoint slides have to be provided both as 'pre-reads'... for the audience, and as information to go on the record for the benefit (?) of others in, and sometimes outside, the organisation" -- is almost word for word what one of my clients told me. In her company -- a large software developer -- they cut and paste pages from Word documents straight into PowerPoint slides. Incredible.

Max Atkinson said...

Chris - incredible, yes. But I'm surprised your client is still using Word at all. More and more of mine tell me that they seldom use it for internal purposes, as pretty well everything they ever write is done on PowerPoint (whether or not it's for a presentation)!

Even more depressing, children at our village primary school (5-11 year olds) are now being taught PowerPoint as part of the curriculum....

Jim Cronin said...

I like you point about costs. Thank you.

Mark Pack said...

Nice point about costs, but isn't the problem with PowerPoint often that it's used to save time (same slides are speaker's notes, visual aids for talk and handout)?

Separating out those three tasks into three different documents usually ends up taking more time for the individual(s) concerned. The big challenge is to make the space in time and resources to be able to increase the impact of presentations.

Max Atkinson said...

Mark - You are, of course, right that trying to kill more than one bird at once takes up more time for the individuals making the presentations. But my point, as ever, is what about the poor old audiences?

And just what is the point of companies paying huge sums of money for one set of people to prepare stuff that's guaranteed to bore another set of people (also being paid) out of their skulls - whilst kidding themselves that important messages are being effectively conveyed?

It strikes me as a rather extreme form of irrational economic behavior that will presumably persist so long as managers pay no attention the real costs and carry on ignoring the fundamental differences between spoken and written communication - which are, needless to say, dealt with with extraordinary lucidity in the opening chapters of 'Lend Me Your Ears'!

John Watkis said...

Great post, Max. I had thought about the cost of poor presentations, but not in the way you've described in this post.

I don't know that PowerPoint use has gotten any worse, but it certainly hasn't gotten any better :-(

simonroskrow said...

Great post. I ran a presentation skills course recently (focusing on small group rather than 'big speech' presentations). As a light-hearted intro, I showed a clip from the comedian Don McMillan (name might not be right!) about some of the worst crimes in PowerPoint presentations. I was rather shocked when each member of the group then gave their opening presentations and committed some of these very crimes.

Overly complex data charts, slides that are essentially scripts, too much (often redundant) information per page, and focusing on the screen rather than the audience: I genuinely but naively thought this had all died out in the 90's, but I was proved very, very wrong!

Still, the upside is that there is much more training work out there on this subject than I thought...

Max Atkinson said...

The most depressing thing about where things have got to is that course participants themselves are very receptive to discussions of the pluses and minuses of PowerPoint and would like to do something about it. But they're thwarted by having to conform to templates and guidelines imposed from on high.

Somehow or other, the challenge is to educate top management about the error of their ways - and the only way to do that may be to alert them to the heavy costs and other losses being incurred by such an ineffective approach to communication.

Anonymous said...

Max, most Powerpoint presentations are nothing more than an electronic old overhead acetates. There are some presenters who will discover the whizz-bang fade-in and fade-out effects, or will set the automatic slide transition to conincide with their notes.

Everytime I sit through yet another tedious presentation I am reminded of another time when the corporate drone would bore the pants of their friends and neighbours with slides of their holidays in Bournemouth.

Ruth Benny said...

A simple solution I propose to my clients is this:

Make your slides available as pre-reads and handouts, by all means, as a PDF file showing the slide AND the notes below it.

I'd always recommend PDFing slides anyway to avoid the possibility of unwanted copying/editing.

This option would kill two birds: satisfy the management and help a half decent presenter to avoid boring the audience to death.

Barbara Ruth Saunders said...

I worked as a vendor for a large company. One of my duties was working with a team to "polish" Powerpoint presentation. By my estimation (assuming my collaborators' pay rate was similar to my own,) some of these presentations were costing upwards of $30K to "polish." Yet there was no direction as to the actual purpose of the presentations.

I quickly picked up that I was committing a social faux pas if I asked what the communicative purpose of a presentation was, the audience for which it was intended, or even the context (posted on the Web or used to deliver a speech.) Typically if such a question got answered, the answer was something like "all of the above", which made it impossible to achieve any professional caliber visual design or organization of text.

Unknown said...

I keep coming up against Corporate Brand police who waive their "Guide to Communication in Print" at me when I train their staff to use PowerPoint as a Visual Aid (rather than as an autocue or a deck of wordy handouts.) I see slides with copyright notices in the footer which the brand police insist are not removed. I guess they're worried that someone in the audience might take a photo of the slide and use it for commercial gain!

I recently did some training with a large group of University Graduates most of whom reported that at school they had been instructed to use black words on white backgrounds only, as their "presentations" would form part of their assessment - the assessors wanted words only!

The scale of PowerPoint misuse is frightening as anyone on the receiving end of a bad presentation hates it - BUT as soon as they themselves are given the job of speaking THEY then immediately abuse it.

It's great when you can ween a presenter off it, though. The improvement in their delivery is immediate and startling!

Wyn Evans said...

more ppoint