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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Is PowerPoint the Enemy?

I was at a meeting a few weeks ago and a lady was asked to address a group of about 25 of us. As she fired up her laptop, a mature gentlemen next to me whispered, “oh no, not a PowerPoint”. She only spoke for a few minutes and was excellent. It fact it took her as much time to get the PowerPoint started as it did for her to present. She really did not need it as she was really on top of her material. After the meeting broke up, the gentlemen and I had a lively exchange about PowerPoints as we went to our cars. I argued that it was merely a tool that is often used badly; he countered, “Power Point was the enemy.” This is a familiar theme from many these days and having sat through thousands of presentations and given many myself, I felt that it is time to weigh in on PowerPoints.

About a dozen years ago, PowerPoints were getting popular but still considered somewhat cutting edge. You could write a presentation at home on a Sunday afternoon, fan it out to staffers for comments and make changes right up until the presentation. When new, they were so novel that even the boss would read them before meetings. ☺

Now, they have become a worn out cliché at best in business, the military, government and academia. At their worst, PowerPoints are a crutch that does a poor job of providing cover for the lazy, the unprepared and the incompetent. Very often the person presenting the PowerPoint did not write it or research its contents. It may be an executive who saw it for the first time an hour before a meeting or a junior staffer who is given a part to play in a big meeting. This often ends badly.

A sales executive who has deep experience and is very shrewd told me that American business is suffering from “PowerPoint fatigue.” People often bore their audiences to tears with thirty plus slides that are very text heavy. I have seen PowerPoints that are 70-80 slides long with dense text that breath life into the wisecrack “death by PowerPoint.”

So, what is needed? A bit of common sense and a bit more work from some people. Some simple rules need to be observed and are often ignored:

1) Cut down on slides.
2) No more than six words per bullet
3) No more than 3-4 bullets per page
4) No more than six bullet slides in a row
5) Always remember that you cannot present complex analyses on bullet points

If you are a CEO, do not use a PowerPoint when addressing your troops or a big customer or client. The reason is that you will likely lose your aura of power. People tend to fixate on the screen and will not listen to you as much even if you ooze charisma. If you want to show a slide or two to illustrate sales or earnings or share price, do so. But, no slides with text, please. You are the star and you need to command everyone’s attention.

Strange things are happening with PowerPoints in academia. Last semester, a student approached me after a long lecture. He smiled, held his hand out, and I shook it. For weeks, he had been peppering me with questions before, after and during class plus sending me long e-mails with more questions or comments. He was the type of student that every professor dreams of teaching. After thanking me for the lecture, I asked if there was anything special about it. He said, “You don’t know how much I appreciate going to school here and to your class. I transferred from XXXXXXXXX University this semester. There, all my teachers used PowerPoints. I swear that there was one class that I could have taught myself. The instructor rarely looked up as she went through the material and almost never deviated from the PowerPoint. If I asked her a question, she would pause and refer back to a bullet point a few slides ago. Another professor handed out printouts of the PowerPoints for each chapter on day one. I rarely went to class, the tests were all multiple choice questions taken directly from the PowerPoint bullets, and I received an A but I learned nothing”.

Something is really wrong if such cases are widespread in our colleges and universities. I do note that every textbook that I have used has detailed PowerPoints for each chapter often with the dreaded text heavy slides.

People are so sick of PowerPoints that many avoid meetings where they will be used. Several years ago, I had regular dealings with a dreadful marketer. She would ask me and everyone she dealt with, “May I have a copy of your PowerPoint. I am really busy today.” Her rudeness inspired me. I trimmed down my PowerPoints to several slides and made them far more spare in prose. After the meeting, I politely but firmly refused to send the PowerPoint to anyone. Instead, I sent a tightly written memorandum, which was 3-4 pages long that not only covered my PowerPoint but what I actually said in the presentation. To date, no one has ever complained. And, when I lecture at a university, I limit PowerPoint usage to once each semester. A few have suggested that this is more work for me. Absolutely! But, it is several times more effective than leaving clients with a hollow PowerPoint that cannot stand on its own or ripping off students and their parents by not teaching an adequate class by hiding behind a PowerPoint.

The late actor, hoofer, and some time singer James Cagney had a great screen presence. He presented himself as perhaps no one else ever did on the Silver Screen. Near the end of his career, a young actress was intimidated when she worked with him and was stunned by his kindness on the set even though director Billy Wilder was giving her fits and sometimes even going after Cagney. As her comfort level with the great man grew, she asked him his secret for performing. He smiled and said, “It is pretty simple. Come in, plant your feet firmly, look the other fella in the eye and tell the truth.”

So take a tip from the great Jimmy Cagney. Cut down on your PowerPoints, and stand and deliver.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

Friday, November 11, 2011

Would Keynes Still be a Keynesian?

Recently, I made a discovery that may be pure coincidence but almost seemed to defy the laws of probability. I noticed that with one exception the individuals whom I considered to be the greatest economists of the 20th century all lead long or unusually long lives. Perhaps studying the nuances of the marketplace gives one a reason to keep going!

For example, the two giants of the Austrian (radical free market) School, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek both lived to be 92. Milton Friedman, the elfin, ebullient leader of the Chicago School (Monetarists) died at 94. His ideological sparring partner, six feet nine inch Institutionalist John Kenneth Galbraith, hung on to be 97. Financial journalist and economist Henry Hazlitt passed on at 98 and Paul Samuelson, whose Keynesian oriented textbook introduced millions of college student to economics for two generations died at 94. Robert Heilbroner, author of the brilliant tome on history of economic thought, THE WORLDLY PHILOSPHERS, lived to be 85.

Depending on your politics, most people would rate Hayek, Friedman, and John Maynard Keynes as the greatest and most influential economists of the 20th century. Unlike the other luminaries Keynes died much younger at age 62. That simple fact has made me consider a number of what if scenarios.

John Maynard Keynes, later Baron Keynes of Tilton, was considered Britain’s foremost intellectual in the 1920’s. Even the arrogant and supremely self-confident philosopher Bertrand Russell, always said he came up short when trying to debate Keynes on any subject. Keynes was a brilliant mathematician and economist.

In the late 1920’s, the two leaders of the Austrian school, von Mises and Hayek began to warn of economic danger in the western world, as credit buildup was excessive. When the U.S. stock market crashed in October 1929 followed by a depression a year or so later, they were seen as seers. When asked what should be done, they essentially said “nothing.” The market would self correct as Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” (outlined in 1776 in his WEALTH OF NATIONS) would usher in a return to a normal environment. In brief, the invisible hand is a theory that states that collectively if all individuals in a society act in his or her self-interest, they would produce all the goods or services that are required by society. The invisible hand did not need government guidance of any kind. This pure laizzez faire approach would produce the greatest good and eventually generate economic growth.

By 1933, much of the Western world was out of patience. In the U.S., unemployment was at 25%. New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president and was sworn in as our chief executive on March 4, 1933. Although he had run on a platform featuring a balanced budget, Roosevelt ran away from conventional economics shortly after taking office. He abandoned the gold standard, confiscated the gold of private citizens, and engaged in a wide array of government stimuli under the umbrella of “The New Deal.” Among these were the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which gave construction jobs to thousands of unemployed young men, and the Social Security system that was an attempt to supplement the income of older Americans.

While purists howled, Roosevelt pushed on with his experiments. Keynes, observing similar suffering in the United Kingdom, penned his THE GENERAL THEORY OF EMPLOYMENT, INTEREST AND MONEY (it is a world class boring read, believe me, and is probably the most influential book that has been so rarely read by its supporters) in 1936. With a heavyweight like Keynes endorsing the Roosevelt approach and wrapping some discipline around it, Keynesianism became a mainstream approach and remains so to this day in much of the civilized world. It is amusing to see the GOP presidential hopefuls debate these days. Only the unelectable Ron Paul of Texas is a true free market advocate; he is an Austrian through and through. The others all exhibit varying degrees of Keynesian in their thinking but would deny it vehemently if challenged.

Because so few have read Keynes’ General Theory they feel free to interpret it to suit their needs. Keynes was indeed a champion of government intervention when the market went haywire. He wanted public works projects to kick-start the economy and get people working, spending, and creating demand for products. But he also was in favor of things that politicians choose to forget. After the crisis was averted, Keynes believed that governmental budgets should be balanced over time. What!!! Keynes said deficit spending was fine during the dark days of depression and during World War I and II, but year in and year out you balanced your budgets! So, what would Lord Keynes think of the U.S. with their 47 years of deficits over the last 50. Not much, I would think.

He would certainly have agreed to the TARP bailout of 2008 but what would be have thought of the decades of reckless spending leading up to it?

Like all serious thinkers, he was intellectually honest enough to question his theories. In April 1946 he attended a luncheon at the Bank of England. Everyone else was saying that the US and Europe may fall in to a depression as returning servicemen needed to find jobs at home. Keynes was very upbeat and accurate about the U.S. prospects and felt that it would take more time in Britain, which had serious war damage in major cities. Then he said something fascinating—“I find myself more and more relying for a solution of our problems on the invisible hand which I tried to eject from economic thinking twenty years ago.”

A few days later Keynes was dead. Had he lived 30 years longer as many of his fellow economic giants did, I am certain that what we call Keynesianism would look very, very different today.

Also, right-wingers often dismiss Keynes as a socialist. This is utter nonsense. The Labor party always wanted Lord Keynes to join their ranks. He stayed with the Liberals, a centrist party, and was very upset when Clement Attlee, a Labor (Socialist) party M.P. became Prime Minister besting Winston Churchill, the Conservative, and Archie Sinclair, the Liberal leader. He was also a fabulously successful speculator who was worth perhaps $40 million dollars just before World War II. His beloved Kings College at Cambridge let him manage their funds and their endowment exploded upward under his guidance. Were he 35 today, he might well be a hedge fund manager. Some socialist!

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Do You Feel A Little Pinched?

There is an interesting new book out by Don Peck simply called PINCHED. Peck is a features editor at THE ATLANTIC.

I read business and economics books omnivorously but I found this one to be unusually strong. There was little in the book that was new to me but I have never seen all of these issues covered and done so well all in a slim volume of 188 pages.

Peck’s main thesis is that the Great Recession that hit us late in 2008 is no ordinary downturn. Unlike past V-shaped downturns that were rough but short in tenure, this one lingers on. Some 80% of us still believe the economy is in recession even though the Federal Reserve and other august economic sources tell us that we are well on our way to solid though admittedly sluggish growth.

The two things overhanging the economy that Peck keys on are nagging unemployment levels listed at 9% but likely much higher when underemployment is put into the mix plus a real estate market that in some states has yet to touch bottom.

Both of these issues have smashed the American dream in many ways. Virtually all of us have always looked forward to a future in which our children live better or at least the same as we have lived. With unemployment and underemployment among recent college grads at high levels plus many burdened with huge college loans, many seem in a hole with little chance of fast escape. Owing a home has become a fantasy to some 20-somethings despite record low interest rates. No one will give them a mortgage and, a smart banker should not do so.

Peck also raises an issue that has been covered a great deal in the major media in recent weeks but he was on to it months ago when this book went to press. There are pockets of America where there are labor shortages. North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming top the list. But with 24% of people underwater on their mortgages (the mortgage is higher than the value of the home), many people are stuck in their communities with no hope of moving unless they declare bankruptcy (we touched on this a bit in the Media Realism series, “Mid-Sized Malaise” in October, 2010). Also, many people would not find the cold weather in these states appealing and culturally an unemployed New Yorker might not find people with a similar sense of life in North Dakota.

He touches on the income inequality that everyone is harping on these days but surprisingly, and to his credit, does not offer a simplistic “soak the rich” solution to the issue. He instead is honest and recommends “strong budget discipline and a reduction in the growth of Medicare costs, and somewhat higher taxes for most Americans.” Peck also asks for increased spending on infrastructure and innovation. Whether you agree with this prescription or not, he does not take the unrealistic route of saying that we can easily grow our way out of it or tax our way out of it.

This book is a cool headed assessment of the miserable mess that we are in. If a politician talked this way, he or she would get virtually no traction.

PINCHED will make you think. I highly recommend it.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at dcole@doncolemedia.com