Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
November 15, 201112:05 PM

Is PowerPoint Making Us Stupid?

How many mindless presentations have you sat through in business and life?

How many numbing slides have you had to endure of pie-charts or ones littered with hundreds of words? How many times have you sat through a presentation where the speaker was, literally, reading aloud the content on the slides that are right in front of you? How many times have you sat there while someone read (poorly) a speech while stammering behind a podium. The amount of content (both in traditional media and online) about death by PowerPoint is staggering.

Why do we - as a society - put up with up?

It's probably one of the last media frontiers that we need to take a serious look at, implode and re-invent. Yes, presentation software (be it, PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi or others) are simply tools to help a message get communicated, but it's gone beyond that to the point where the presentation software is the message... and not the true message (it would make Marshall McLuhan cry). In the recently published Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson, Jobs discusses how he re-invented Apple during the iMac phase by abolishing the use of presentation software in meetings. He felt that people were relying on the creation and presentation of a slide deck instead of actually thinking about the business problem and how to solve it. On page 337 of the telling biography, Jobs says, "People who know what they're talking about don't need PowerPoint."

It's the content, stupid.

It seems obvious enough, but the idea that a presentation is only as good as the content being presented has become a lost art. It's so fundamental (and obvious), but it's true. Ultimately, people use bulletpoints because they're worried they may forget something (which means, they don't know their content well enough) or they use fancy charts (which means that they can't explain something simply enough without a visualization) or they use fancy images or video (because it acts as a diversion to the fact that their own content is not as compelling).

There's one simple and easy way to create and give great presentation...

Know your content (inside and out). If you don't, ask yourself this: "should I really be presenting this material as a subject matter expert if I, myself, truly don't know it and have to hide behind bulletpoints or bar graphs?" Here's the thing: amazing images, hilarious videos, powerful infographics, bulletpoints and bar graphs are all incredible components to integrate into any presentation so long as the presentation can be done - 100% in its entirety - without them. Think about some of the best presentations you have seen to date. Most of them used some form of multimedia but all of that media was a bonus. It acted as a vessel to simply push the speaker's message out there in a brighter and more powerful fashion.

The problem is that many presenters feel that the presentation is the presentation. It isn't.

The presentation begins (and ends) with the content and how the presenter delivers it. You don't have to ditch PowerPoint, but you don't need it. If you can augment your presentation by sprinkling it in, by all means... go for it. If software, audio visual, the type of microphone, etc... dictates how your presentation will be perceived, you need to return to the roots of what you're presenting and why you're presenting it, in the first place. Here's an easy way to think about it...

The 3 C's of a great presentation:

  1. Content. What am I being asked to present? What is the story here? How can I tell it in a simple way? How can I create a simple story that pulls it all together?
  2. Compelling. How well do I know my content? How well am I using my body language and words to deliver my content? What else can I do to make my presentation both memorable and actionable? How well have I practices this material be compelling in my delivery?
  3. Compassion. How can I get people to emotionally connect to me? How candid am I being with the audience? How much do I care about the audience? How much do I care about the content? How much emotion can I deliver?

Great presentations don't happen by accident. 

People forget that the best presentations are also a performance. They are art. The best presenters (like the best actors, artists and musicians) commit to the practice, study and performance of presentations. It's not an easy art to master (it takes years for some...with proper coaching, mentoring and instruction). Steve Jobs didn't wander out on to a stage and hope for the best (and if not, rely on his PowerPoint slides to deliver the message). He worked obsessively on everything from the core message to how the lighting in the room was set. He felt that those who didn't put the time and effort into this were bozos (granted, he felt that most people were bozos). Steve Jobs was a master presenter, and you can be too if you're willing to focus on the content and step away from the PowerPoint.

What presentations tips would you add?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for The Huffington Post called, Media Hacker. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Posted by John McLachlan
    Mitch Joel

    Mitch, I certainly agree that a presentation of bullet points because the presenter doesn't really know his stuff is nuts and is unfortunately, all too common but I think a good presentation can include the use of presentation software to add impact.

    Maybe it depends a little on what the subject is. I do a workshop for arts organizations on beginner level graphic design. I use slide to illustrate the points. Without those, I'd be talking only "theory."

    I think it's become trendy these days to dump on presentation software. It really depends on the user and how it's used. To slag it so dramatically would be like saying silent films were good enough to convey the message - why add sound?

    Reply
  • Very good points. It's also true that if a presentation doesn't depend on technology, that eliminates the risk of technology failure delaying or ruining the presentation.

    At one point I worked with a lot of presenters/facilitators, and I can't begin to count the times they couldn't get their laptops to connect with the projector, couldn't get their media to play on our computer, etc., etc...

    I do like PowerPoint as an enhancement tool and to display things people are going to want to copy down (like URLs), but I would never want to put myself in the position of having to say, "oh gosh, can't get the projector to work so I guess I can't give my presentation" -- as you say, the presentation *itself* should stand on its own.

    Reply
  • I truly LOVE when established marketers vocally support the presentation revolution. You hit on pretty much every major pain-point and issue that us presentation designers are fighting every day.

    But if I can echo your sentiments, it's ABSOLUTELY about the content, #1, and #2, the presenter has to KNOW the content. Bullet-points and long-form sentences are simply crutches.

    One issue I see arising often in the corporate culture is to create a PowerPoint to serve two masters, attempting to serve as both a visual backdrop and an informative leave-behind. It literally kills two birds with one stone, killing your entire presentation.

    There are a passionate few of us who consistently write about this and have services that go far beyond just graphic design, into what truly makes an effective presentation and how to construct a story that engages. I appreciate you shining a bit of light on the topic.

    Reply
  • Posted by Amanda Oleson
    Mitch Joel

    Well said. I'm really glad to see you speaking out against awful presentations.

    I feel like the issue goes deeper than stuffy corporate protocols and presenters not being totally prepared though. Often at the university level, professors insist students use PowerPoint (or something similar) for class presentations and projects. I'm struggling to think of a single course I took in college that didn't require a presentation with PowerPoint (Prezi wasn't around back then). I would really love to see alterations to requirements like that - it definitely leads to (or at least allows) laziness in business presentations later on.

    Reply
  • I think that it has nothing to do with the software being used, but more to do with the mindset of the presenter. The goal of the presenter, is to transfer information in the best possible way so the recipient quickly and completely grasps the meat of the message. Unfortunately, most presentations, are like the 10 seconds to go Hail-Mary pass, hoping that if they throw up something (anything) that the recipient will want it bad enough to jump up and grab it... or ask more relevant questions. What most presenters don't realize is that learning needs to be multi-stimulating and not be data intensive but rather "relevant intensive."

    Reply
  • Being able to deliver a presentation 100% without any visuals shows preparation. It's not ideal, though. Visuals help communicate. If you allow the use of a flipchart or whiteboard, I'll go along with you.

    At a recent conference, the keynote spoke about learning from failure for an hour without visuals. The other presenters I saw used PowerPoints with only bullet points (not a single visual). Neither approach was very effective. In contrast, my presentation was perfect :)

    Reply
  • Posted by Nick Trendov
    Mitch Joel

    Mitch,
    PowerPoint is simply a whiteboard, a mirror available to any author...to quote Forrest Gump..."Stupid is as Stupid does".

    Believing that any story is independent of an author is naive.

    One simple 'correction' around the use of stories generally and PowerPoint specifically is related to the function of the author or 'storyteller'. Storytellers actually tune perception and the story is formulated by the listener or for PowerPoint, the viewer.

    Very little time is devoted to 'tuning perception' except by the masters who do it 'parallel' to the presentation--think Steve Jobs.

    Now the Apple folks will howl since Jobs had something 'better' but they miss the 'tuning' value, imho

    For those interested in the concept of tuning perception consider how Twitter employs resonance measures or see our work at http://www.marketstory.com

    Cheers,
    Nick Trendov @SpeedSynch

    Reply
  • "I'm sorry, I received the presentation last night and didn't read it. So we'll discover it together." Can you believe I heard that many times?

    Unfortunately, there is a bad presentation culture in organization. As my friend Jon Thomas wrote, we are a few people trying to change thing with training and coaching.

    When I read a post like this one, wrote by someone with your notoriety, I now there is hope. It helps us change the mentality and change the world of presentation for better.

    Thanks for your contribution.

    Denis Francois

    __________________
    Denis Francois Gravel
    PRESENTability.com

    Reply
  • Posted by Chantal Bosse
    Mitch Joel

    Great post and great comments! With dedicated presentation designers, coaches & trainers, we might be able to make a difference one day.

    As for my two cents on extra presentation tips, I would add that if a multimedia file is the chosen route to deliver a presentation, we need to think about message and structure but, most of all, take more than 24 hours to produce it! (And practice it!)

    Amazing how many weeks and months people are willing to take for marketing campaigns & web sites...but are not willing to spend more than 2-3 hours on their presentations with which they should inspire and convince to bring some dollars in.

    Chantal Bosse
    chabos.ca

    Reply
  • Posted by elissapr
    Mitch Joel

    Oh how I long for the days of acetates and overheads...

    But really? Power Point is for the weak - and those with lousy presentation skills.

    Reply
  • Posted by Anil Dilawri
    Mitch Joel

    Thank you for writing this post, Mitch. As executive presentation coaches, we tell clients everyday of the importance of presentations and the need to do them well.

    Just today, I gently told a client that many of her PowerPoint slides hurt her presentation as opposed to helped her presentation. It's a tough message to deliver to those who have grown up in a PowerPoint dominated culture.

    One of my favorite tips for clients is the following: "If all they wanted was your PowerPoint slides then they would have asked for your PowerPoint slides, but they asked for you, so let's give them you."

    Thanks again for the post. I will be sharing it with many!

    Cheers,
    Anil
    @SaveitlikeSully

    Reply
  • Totally agree with you, Mitch. The worst thing one can see, as a member of the audience, is a stuttered presenter, which asks for "just a moment to check the papers" or ends up throwing the responsibility to the audience, because "well... you know what I'm talking about".

    I'm not a student per se of this art... yet. But I do appreciate a good presentation, and most of all a good speaker, as well as I enjoy my presentations and my talks to be compelling. It's a passion that's been building up inside me throughout this last year.

    I'm thinking of using this as a hook for a future blog post as well (with proper linkage, of course).

    Regards!

    Reply
  • Posted by Josh Muirhead
    Mitch Joel

    Excellent post, and extremely true. In fact, as I sat through a "classic" PowerPoint presentation last night, I was wondering many of the same questions that you presented above.

    Does this person really know what their talking about? {in most cases the answer was no...they were just asked to "read")

    What is that slide trying to say? As they had used 12 point font with 10+ bullet points

    And most importantly - Why am I listening to this, and why are they presenting this? Although they didn't seem to have any trouble filling two hours of my life, they certainly never hit on why I should have spent those two hours.

    I would love to add two things:

    One) If someone does choice to use PowerPoint {which is an excellent tool if used correctly} And they elect to place their logo, URL, and other information on every single slide, you're going to loss people. Even if the rest of the slide is great, the presenter has forgot one of the top rules - people didn't come to the presentation for them...they can for themselves

    Two) This link form CBS, it's a quick list of 23 ways to help improve presentations: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505183_162-28557583-10391735/23-sure-fire-ways-to-improve-your-presentations/

    Reply
  • Your post reminds me of Garr Reynolds' "The Naked Presenter," which I recent read. A big takeaway I got from it: Know your content well enough to get out from behind the slide deck, from behind the podium, and really connect with your audience.

    Reply
  • Posted by Peter Munnerlyn
    Mitch Joel

    I can't agree with you more, Joel. Thanks for writing this. I've been using Prezi (http://prezi.com/ ) for a couple years now and I can't stand PPTs... Have you ever used Prezi?

    Reply
  • Posted by Kathy Fuller
    Mitch Joel

    I agree with a lot of this--know your presentation inside out. From the perspective of an audience member, I wouldn't want to see power point and its ilk go away, though. I'm a very visual learner and don't process audio-only info very well. Like you said, it needs to be an enhancement, not a crutch. Integrating the visual with the speaking in a balanced and knowledgeable manner is the way to go.

    Reply
  • Posted by Nick Smith
    Mitch Joel

    What an amazing article, Mitch. I'm so glad to hear it stated by someone outside the realm of presentation design.

    You hit the nail on the head when you said that the presentation must support the speaker. I totally agree that the presentation has to be able to happen without the slides, and that the slides should just make an already great speech even better.

    We have got to keep preaching these ideas. The culture will change, but we need more evangelists. :^)

    Reply
  • Posted by Mike davenport
    Mitch Joel

    If I may, I'd add that simple images can make an amazing difference in terms of engagement and clarity.

    Especially if those images are authentic.

    Canned images, stock ones, have low engagement. Your own pictures, hand drawn images, simple sketches that look like they were made by people, can grab an audience's attention and help get complex thoughts across.

    Reply
  • To say I'm opinionated on this subject would be an understatement Mitch. Fact is, Power Point has lead to the death of great presentation, interaction, and real-time inspiration. We're so busy reading and producing dumb slides that we forget that all the audience really wants is to have a conversation with the speaker.

    I only use PP for photos, and those photos are only there to set the mood.

    I think we're going to look back at this time period and think, 'What the heck happened to all the great communicators....?'

    Reply
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