Powerpoint steps in context

I often wonder at advice that people give about travelling because the act can vary so widely; the way I travel — what and how I pack my clothes, even — depends on the situation.  Travelling for work, for instance, is quite different than travelling for vacation.  Travelling with kids is completely different than travelling alone.  Vagabonding is different than a quick weekend getaway.  And so forth.

The same is true with presentations.  It’s hard, I think, to give good presentation advice without precisely specifying the context of your advice.  So, for instance, Seth Godin has a new posting on “Nine steps to Powerpoint magic,”

The first of his steps (not rules) is to not use Powerpoint at all.  But if you have to use Powerpoint, don’t use bullets.  And if you have to use bullets, make them one or two word bullets, max.  After all, Godin says, “Powerpoint is for ideas.”  He recommends using a remote and a microphone, and keeping the overall presentation time down to ten minutes if possible.

This may be good advice — I trust Godin — but for what?  I gather that he’s referring to public speaking events with dozens or hundreds of people in the audience, Steve Jobs product announcement style.  But the problem is that the rest of us, those not making big product announcements, use Powerpoint for completely different purposes.  Purposes for which these ‘steps’ are completely worthless.

Many years ago, as a young pup consultant, I was trained in a rigorous style of presentation development very different than Godin’s.  One of the cardinal rules was that the ‘deck’ should stand alone as a paper document.  Anyone should be able to pick it up and understand the story without any prior knowledge.  In fact, they should be able to read only the headlines and understand the story.  The headlines were the most important part of each slide and the content in the slide should support the headline.  The content of the slide could be data or charts or bullet points, depending on the requirements of the story.  Good decks were written headline-first; in older versions of Powerpoint it was easier to do this than it is today, but the vestigal functionality of writing in outline form still exists in the application today.  Ideally, you should start with a blank template, write out your whole deck in headlines, and then go back and fill in the detail on the page in support of the headlines.

My office had complicated rules about punctuation and capitalization but generally you were expected to write in complete sentences and if you were going to make a bulleted list it definitely had to have more than one, and preferably more than two, bullets in the list.  Single word bullet points weren’t even considered an option.  All these details were strictly enforced as drafts, paper drafts, were handed around the office.  It was common to get dozens of detailed line edits on a single version of a deck.  Why are the bullets ordered in this sequence?  What are the units on this graph?  What is the point of this table?  Why doesn’t it have a title?  Can you call out the important fact here? And so on.

The assumpion behind this style of presentation was that the deck would be read, as a document, by a small group of clients and consultants around a table and then passed around at the client site as the documentation of our recommendations.  No one ever thought to stand up with a microphone or a remote — these were black & white printed paper artifacts, to be reviewed in groups of a dozen or less.  I remember the first time I had to make a color presentation for a client, and how gaudy and tacky it felt.

Powerpoint, like any other tool, gets used for tasks for which it is distinctly ill-suited, and there are a lot of people using Powerpoint who do a terrible job with it.  But helping them do a better job with their tool requires an understanding of the context; what works for Seth Godin on stage in front of hundreds of people will not work for a small team dealing with a complex, intricate problem.

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3 thoughts on “Powerpoint steps in context

  1. Absolutely.

    I’m all for cutting back the alphabet soup and the 12 point type that ends up on many presentations, but depending on the situation, it’s not always feasible.

    In my organization, we use PowerPoint as a “live brochure”, delivering information about our capabilities and accomplishments to engineers and consultants in the span of 15 minutes.
    Describing the construction of motor control panels, or the capabilities of a SCADA system is not something that can be described in one or two word bullets.

  2. Seth Godin writes:

    Ed, thanks for reading my blog. Comments are off on the ppt post, so I’m leaving them here.

    Just because there were strict rules at your place of employment doesn’t mean they were good rules.

    Using powerpoint to create a leave behind deck that would be read makes zero sense. In the history of communication, no one has ever said, “this is a really good way to communicate an idea! full sentences in 24 point ugly type with bullets, a few to a page, on 8.5 x 11 paper, many many pages long.

    I don’t blame you for following the rules if you had no choice, but it’s my job to challenge those rules. And there’s no data that this is a useful way to communicate.

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