The Trouble With Powerpoint

Wrong tool, right idea

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking someone through a Powerpoint deck on the phone. The discussion was going well. But every now and then she would skip ahead. I’d be on slide 12 expounding some gory detail of our actions in Q1 and she would say “I have a comment to make about XYZ on slide 14″. Just a little unsettling.

So I thought about it. I had sent the deck to her the previous evening. It had a lot of detail – stacks of bullets and in places, full sentences. I wanted her to be able to understand the slide deck by reading it without my voice over. She did exactly that, and then the next day, I subjected her to my voice over anyway. No wonder she was skipping slides.

The number one problem with how Powerpoint is used in companies is that the same deck is used for different purposes. And it doesn’t work. Dual-use powerpoint decks are the single most important reason why the powerpoint slides used in stand-up presentations are so terrible.

IT Services companies are the worst perpetrators of the dual-use crime. We make illustrations with lots of boxes and arrows and inscrutable terms and acronyms. We put them in proposals. Then we take the same illustration and slap it onto a slide. In all its 14 point font glory. During the presentation we will actually turn towards the screen and read the whole thing out. Or sometimes you’ll hear “I won’t take you through all this information, but…”. Well then, why put it on the slide?

Dual-use crimes occur in other ways too. At Infosys, with globally dispersed teams across vastly different time zones, it is very common to exchange powerpoint files with the expectation that the other party will read the powerpoint and understand its contents. A typical email might read “Please find attached a deck that explains XYZ. Let me know if you have any questions.” You open the deck and it’s the same boxes-arrows style of presentation. Sometimes its useful because you already have the background and this is incremental information. At other times, you don’t understand a thing, or even why it was sent to you.

When you want someone to understand a document without a voice over, an email or Word document might work better. Because unlike a few paragraphs of a long email, a Powerpoint slide with boxes and arrows has no narrative thread.

I hand-wrote my transparencies at b-school, at my first job and even for my interview for Infosys in 1994. When Powerpoint was introduced, or rather when I was introduced to it, I thought it was an amazing invention. It completely changed the process of preparing for a presentation. The text on the slides was crisp, clear without having to send the slides to be done by an agency. Editing was so much easier. You could make changes right to the last minute before the presentation. You could draw diagrams and mix them with text easily. Later, we got fancy looking transitions too.

Powerpoint radically changed the overhead presentation. But somewhere along the line, it took over all forms of communication within business. The long form of writing just went away. I don’t know if we are unique at Infosys, but I don’t see much use of MS Word. It is all Powerpoint or Excel.

Dual-use is not the only reason why Powerpoint is overused and misused. The truth is that Powerpoint has become a crutch for the overworked modern-day employee. Its use makes it acceptable to not write full sentences, paragraphs or in fact, have a narrative at all.

As a consultant Powerpoint comes in handy in other ways too. If you aren’t sure about how a client will respond to some parts of the proposal why spell it out in detail. A brief bullet in the deck allows you wiggle room that you use based upon the body language of the client in the meeting.

Consultants also regularly create too many slides and too many words on each slide. This is a universal phenomenon. Why this is so, is not clear to me. It’s as if they are OK with any outcome in the meeting including the client passing out from sheer boredom. But god forbid, they should ever be accused of not working their butts off on the presentation.

Engineers are of course far worse at this than consultants. Most of us receive an education that equips us to solve problems, not communicate the solution to someone else. The engineering school I went to put a high premium on getting the funda (fundamental principle). Explaining how you figured it out was just wasn’t our thing.

Then we join a company where we see consultants flinging out decks with 50 fancy box-and-arrow slides. And we say, we can do that too. Thereafter all slides have boxes, arrows and 14 point text. And of course, tons of jargon and acronyms, because we engineers love them. It makes us look smart. All our formative years have been spent yearning for those small shots of dopamine to the pleasure center of the brain, when I get something that you don’t. Or when I say something that forces the listener to ask, “What does that mean?”. Now suddenly, you’re asking me to communicate simply. That just fries my circuits.

And of course it is also well known that most engineers are color blind. So our 50 box-and-arrow slides in 14 point text display all colors of the rainbow. The final product can be quite awesome to behold. Something that can kill a domestic pet at 20 paces. Clients are advised to wear protective eyewear.

In Indian IT Services companies I believe this is now a crisis. Not just the use of Powerpoint but all of business communication. And with the SMS generation now getting into mainstream business communication, the future doesn’t look too gr8 either.