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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

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