Information Wants To Be Clear: PowerPoint Isn’t Helping

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we communicate over the last few months, and all of the ways we do it badly, particularly in a business context. So I was intrigued—and bemused—when I came a across a blog post entitled Why I Write In PowerPoint.

Given how much I dislike building presentations using PowerPoint, the idea of writing using it seemed like a singularly unpleasant proposition.

My immediate thought was, like accountants writing reports in Excel because its all they know, the author must be a PowerPoint aficionado. And that assumption would be correct. Nancy Duarte lives and breathes presentations. She contributed heavily to the development of Al Gore’s presentation of An Inconvenient Truth. She is the author of one of my favourite books on speaking, Slide:ology. Her company, Duarte, is in the business of presentation creation. She lives, eats and breathes this stuff.

But credentials aside, should we actually be writing in PowerPoint? What advantages does it provide? What inadequacies does it contain? And what dangers does doing so present?

Duarte makes some compelling cases in her blog post. She likes it for story boarding. It lets her capture information in bite-size chunks. It keeps things focussed at a high level and manages length. You can readily print and publish the results. All these things are true, certainly, but they are not always strengths, and can often be crippling weaknesses.

I’ve seen many, many consultants turn to PowerPoint as a primary communication tool. Rather than producing a report and a corresponding presentation that provides and executive summary, the objective seems to be to combine the two. Whether this is laziness, a theoretical effort to save the client billable hours or idolatrous mimicry, I’m not sure. What I do know is that combining two separate deliverables into one slide deck robs the report of detail, while doing nothing to summarize the results for an executive audience.

What gets produced when consultants use PowerPoint is a dense forest of words, graphs and explanations, in font sizes that challenge comprehensibility. Presented on a projector, the result is overwhelming, and the temptation for the presenter to read the content in detail is still astonishingly strong. Published as a report, however, the theoretical denseness hides the fact that a lot of detail I would normally expect to see in a consulting report is missing.

I’m sure the slide designer in Duarte would cringe just looking at some of these decks. Yet that’s pretty much what she is arguing for in her HBR post. Others also advocate for taking the presentation approach; Bill Gurley, a venture capitalist, makes an argument that a pitch deck for VC funding needs a focused, compelling, numerically-supported story in no more than 25 slides. We are collectively in love with PowerPoint, and that sentiment is frankly dangerous.

Edward Tufte is the author of a pretty awesome take-down of PowerPoint. A statistician and artist, Tufte is best known as a guru in effectively presenting information visually. One of his analyses is the use (and misuse) of PowerPoint in NASA where it had become a ubiquitous communication tool. Tufte argues that PowerPoint the structure of PowerPoint encourages certainty, simplicity and brevity even in situations that are uncertain, complex and require detailed explanation. It is not a tool for subtlety and nuance.

The primary point that Tufte makes, and that I believe it is extremely important to reinforce, is that information has a way that it wants (and needs) to be communicated in order to be understood effectively. PowerPoint can be useful in telling stories and displaying summary information, but it is inherently not useful in conveying complexity and detail. PowerPoint is not a writing tool, it is not an authoring tool, and it does a poor job of conveying structure.

If PowerPoint is what you know best, it will likely be awfully tempting to broaden its use and apply it to just about everything. When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. That does not mean you should, nor does it mean that doing so is effective, efficient or appropriate. We need to match our tools to the jobs that we are trying to perform. Bottom line, PowerPoint is not the Swiss Army knife of business communication that some would like it to be. Using it that way robs us of our ability to communicate effectively, and it robs our audience of their ability to best understand what we mean.

One Comment to “Information Wants To Be Clear: PowerPoint Isn’t Helping”

  1. Frieda says:

    Thanks Mark, very thought provoking post. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the best way to convey complex and detailed concepts to a broader audience. I struggle myself with what seems an ever shortening attention span and the tendency to over simplify. The man still said the truest thing “Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler”….

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