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.

17 thoughts on “The Trouble With Powerpoint”

  1. Complete agree!

    “Death by PowerPoint” is a common term use for boring meetings and for presentations which confuse than give clarity.

    We need to use it judiciously, as without a doubt its one hell of a tool! But with great power comes great responsibility! :-)


  2. PPT poisoning: noun, death by over-exposure to crammed, crappy presentations.
    High time, this word enters Oxford Dictionary.


  3. There is this Guy Kawasaki 10/20/30 rule on PowerPoint slides: have not more than 10 slides, finish within 20 minutes and use 30 point font. It worked for me today at the Financial Technology Summit, where I had this most engaging conversation with my audience of fellow CIOs. The ppt was single-use (can send you if you wish to)!


  4. Posted this at the Enterprise Irregulars blog too:

    PowerPoint was created as a program to accompany presenters — the slide deck was an accessory — the presenter was the actual presentation. Now we have evolved to an age where PowerPoint functions either as a tele-prompter (speakers reading out everything on their slides) or as a business report (make sense of everything I threw on these slides, and yes I added all the impressive slides that my colleague used last month, and what I used 6 months ago).

    Of course no one can any longer make sense — many people cannot even spell “PowerPoint” well any more! Lack of proper PowerPoint education is one of the biggest time wasters in business history — and having been a PowerPoint MVP, I should know. I am sure things are no different at Infosys.


  5. When I was first exposed to powerpoint based proposals in infy, I thought it was great but over a period of time I felt it seriously kills creativity and originality in solutioning. The reused components always make sure you talk what you have rather than what the other party wants, a key reason why people lose interest.
    I have felt many times its easier to prepare (anyway we collate not create) or present a slide deck than listen through one. In a ppt based training I would rather give the training than attend one. I have promised myself I will never give overhead ppt based training, it has to be board and marker with handouts.

    I stil prefer MS Word and I have mostly worked on Word format proposals with my post infy employer (last 7-8 yrs).


    1. Good thoughts, Dip — but what’s in a Word document that’s different from what you would do in PowerPoint? At the end of the day, it’s your handwriting that’s going to ensure if your script can be read, not whether you used one size of paper or the other? The most important thing that’s missing in PowerPoint presentations these days is the “story” — it does not matter how well you say it as long as you have nothing to say.


      1. The original post also mentions story, context can be potentially better articulated in MS Word vs Powerpoint. Also the last line does mention its a generic challenge in business communication than a tool specific phenomenon. The root cause in my opinion is we don’t listen or understand a problem, we just propose (or rather profess) which not necessarily the other party is willing to listen/ read.
        Invariably bullets in JDs of mid level BD, Sales, Pre-Sales, etc will read fire in the belly, road runner, go getter, high flyer etc which when assessed loosely translates to talks more and listens less. I am yet to see a JD which says talks less, listens more..
        Contrary to popular perception, each profession needs a fair mix of introverts vs extroverts, thinkers vs executors, analysers vs decision makers etc etc for a balance. We, a predominantly homogeneous community of Engineers who think similar by virtue of education are further made to behave similar through professional grooming, leadership coaching or in the name of acceptable corporate behavior..


  6. Rightly said, Basab.
    Nowadays, Powerpoint is about cramming in more Power, without the Point.
    That comment about ‘protective eyegear’ about ‘colorblind engineers’ was awesome! Thanks to the newer versions of Office which has theme based colors – this is lesser of a problem (but the over-zealous, over-creative folks override that anyway!)


  7. I love well made power points. They ensure that major messages do not get missed out in the heat of a discussion . For bullets my only mantra is ” brevity is the soul of wit”.

    Agree with using word doc for enabling independent understanding but just like long form writing, long form reading is going out of style too. A power point might have a better chance of getting opened. The first objective is to get the reader to read.


  8. Power point is just a tool, how it’s used depends on the person making the slides. This blog writer of ours seems to blame the tool for something he can’t do properly, or some one else might have bored him to death.

    Don’t kill the messenger buddy. I have seen great presentations in PP and very bad ones too, but I never took it as PP made the slides, I took it as the presenters hard work/creativity or lack of imagination.


  9. Basab, i agree with Humayun’s comment, powerpoint is just a tool, and i also agree with you that a large proportion of powerpoints are not nicely done.

    But more importantly on this post, is mixing personal musings and commenting on Infosys culture (by a person of authority within Infosys) in the same personal blog, correct? Would be interested to hear what your and other readers views are…


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