Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
July 5, 2013 4:02 PM

PowerPoint Doesn't Suck. You Do.

How many times have you heard the phrase, "PowerPoint sucks!" or "slides kill presentations?"

Here's something to think about as you head into the weekend: PowerPoint doesn't suck. You suck. Sorry. I don't mean "you" (the person reading this blog post... I mean after all, for all I know you could well be one of the smartest people in the world), but the person who is speaking/presenting/attempting to captivate a crowd and is using way too much slide presentation software without understanding their content at all... they suck. True story: I was speaking at a board meeting several months ago. It was a small event in a very exclusive hotel. The audio/video set-up was two brand-new, fifty inch TV monitors for an intimate group of twenty executives. I plugged my MacBook air directly into these two televisions that were attached by a splitter. I ran through some of my slides during the allotted set-up time. Also in the room were the most senior communications and marketing executives from the company, to ensure that everything was being set-up just right. As I clicked through my slides, one of them asked: "what technology are you using to show your slides?"  My response was: "ummm, that's PowerPoint." They looked at each other and burst out laughing. "That's NOT how we use PowerPoint," they said.

It's not PowerPoint. It's you.

The reason people use so many headings and bulletpoints is because:

  1. They don't know their content.
  2. They don't know how to design a presentation.
  3. They don't know how to tell a story.
  4. They're worried that they are going to forget something.

It runs deeper.

If you really want to better understand how to create a more compelling presentation and how to design it, folks like Garr Reynolds, Nancy Duarte, Nick Morgan and Peter Coughter can best help you deep-dive well beyond the skimming of this blog post. The point is this: don't let bad presentations of the past dictate the presentation that you have to give tomorrow. PowerPoint, Keynote and the like are blank canvasses. You can put on them whatever you want. That being said, whatever you do put on a slide is not the content. At all. Whatever you put on the slide is simply a way to reinforce whatever it is that is coming out of your mouth. Your presentation is not your slides. Your presentation is not your technology. Your presentation is not the words or images on a screen. Your presentation is your ability to distill the information between your ears into a format that tells a simple, educational and entertaining story to your audience.

Here's what you must do:

  1. Know your content inside and out. When the slides fail (and something always fails), it should have no bearing on you or the story you tell.
  2. If you don't know how to create a story arc, find/hire someone who can help you formulate a strategy and structure.
  3. Learn how to tell your story. What is the beginning, the middle and the end? What is the one thing (or two) that everyone should know after it's all said and done?
  4. Don't worry about forgetting certain parts. If you know the greater story, the details do work out.
  5. Practice, rehearse and know your content (yes, it bears repeating).

Don't let the slides suck.

Inevitably, someone will tell you that they would like a copy of the presentation or that the presentation should also be some kind of leave-behind. Don't fall for that. It's a myth. If you have to leave something behind, don't let it be your slides. Leave the audience with speaking notes or a more formal deck, but not the slides. Why? The slides should only be a small component of the story. In fact, I would argue that the best presentations in the world are the ones where the slides are completely meaningless unless you have seen the speaker present them. Focus on that. Ensure that your slides act as a visual enhancement to everything that you're saying. Why? Because if they don't, it means that there was never a need to have the presenters there in the first place, because everything was self-evident from the words on the slides.

That would be a shame.

BONUS! Here's a hilarious little story about Steve Jobs from Apple and his desire to become a better storyteller from Business Insider: Here's An Awesome Story About Steve Jobs Telling An Employee He's Going To Become The World's Best Story Teller In 1994.

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Posted by Ville Kilkku
    Mitch Joel

    I think a fifth item could be added to the list of reasons for Powerpoint decks that suck: They don't care about the event.

    I have seen lots of presentations where the presenter has a hundred slides and goes through them, skipping some, wondering which ones to talk about. In these cases, none of the four points you listed are (necessarily) correct, it's just that the presenter has a general deck that he can use in most situations. Unfortunately, not practicing for precisely the allocated time slot and precisely the expected audience hurts the impression a lot.

    One of the latest such experiences I've had was just last month, where this university professor gave a presentation on the future of Lean. As the subject was something I'm well-acquianted with, I was able to appreciate his insight, but many people who were listening could not understand what he was talking about. Well, it could be that he was not a very good presenter overall, but he did display all the symptoms of the "one deck to rule them all" syndrome: skipping slides, thinking what to talk about out loud, and not knowing his time slot.

    I must also comment that I vehemently disagree with the notion that the best presentations are the ones where "slides are completely meaningless unless you have seen the speaker present them."

    I have also seen a whole bunch of presentations where the slides are used mostly to create ambience, and I hate those. I'm always wondering, what that view of a space station has to do with social business design the speaker is talking about! I much prefer slides that provide me with the gist of the speech, not all the details, so when I go through them later on they will trigger memories of the speech itself.

    If the slides carry no meaning, I much prefer to listen to a speech without any slides whatsoever. Yes, it is possible! And yes, it can be great!

    Reply
  • Posted by Peter Pallotta
    Mitch Joel

    Very relevant topic as I have seen too many in my life time and just to add another dimension, Guy Kawasaki has something he calls the 10-20-30 rule when using powerpoint.

    10 is the optimal number of slides
    20 is the number of minutes needed to present the 10 slides
    30 point font only.

    You can youtube him, has an hour of video just on this.

    Reply
  • Posted by Neil Hopkins
    Mitch Joel

    Totally agree (although the tech is very, very sucky) - far too many people don't know how to make and deliver a presentation.

    It's a sad world when a whirling transition is more interesting than the actual delivery...

    Reply
  • Posted by Carolyn
    Mitch Joel

    Two weeks ago John "Colder Ice" Lawson took the stage to give a presentation to a group of eBay sellers at a Las Vegas conference. Much to his dismay he could not get his slides to work with the laptop provided. After a few minutes of frustration he grabbed the hand held mike and jumped down from the podium giving one of the best presentations of his career. Instead of reading, he was interacting.
    The moral to this story is that visuals are just icing on the cake. A great presentation is enhanced by them but a dismal one is not going to be any better for them. Either you know your stuff or you don't.

    Reply
  • Posted by Rob Cotter
    Mitch Joel

    Pitches usually suck. Powerpoints are fine. :)

    Reply
  • Posted by martin
    Mitch Joel

    Software, formatting, style, content, message, speaker...they can all suck -

    I find treating presentations as important handovers and times to seek joint ownership are what should be in focus.

    Is the question really...how do I use a handful of slides to share my message, make my point, be memorable and move the team forward?

    Reply
  • Posted by Justin
    Justin

    Sorry, but PowerPoint as a piece of software DOES suck. That's not to say that good presentations can't be created using it but that any good presentation created using PowerPoint could probably be done in half the time using Keynote.

    Reply
  • Posted by Maciek the IT guy
    Maciek the IT guy

    And to add to that what's wrong with copy paste from PP to Paint (both Microsoft tools) that rotated 90 degree angle arrow cannot keep text inside like in original diagram? A bug? I thought it was commercial product that we buy license for. If I was to pay for fixing vendor bugs (like Microsoft requires... if it agrees to accept bug report) I would go open source tools.

    Reply
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