The powerpoint trap  March 17, 2011   «  »

Powerpoint bewitches people into believing that a standard, templated presentation will be powerful enough, important enough, and persuasive enough to compete successfully against iphones, ipads, blackberries, emails, tweets, facebook, and wandering attention spans. It's so simple, all you have to do is add content and presto change-o, you've got a presentation. It's the all-purpose presentation in a box! Yes!

PPT messy image


Because few people are expert presenters, they rely on PowerPoint as a least-cognitive-effort solution. Text in, convert some piecharts, presentation out. It's not that the templates don't provide good structure, but rather that they're at their best when used as a starting point. Somewhat bizarrely, the reinforcement for this attitude can arise from the audience themselves, particularly if they've grown accustomed (read: inured) to templated, canned, forgettable PowerPoint presentations. Admit it: your boss expects one, the client expects one, you expect one. No, of course you don't believe that, but maybe you know people who do? Because there are a ton of bad PowerPoint presentations out there. So, let's break this down and see where things go kerflooey.

I think we can all agree that software is a tool, right? Right. Good. Now for the possibly difficult, you-might-not-want-to-hear-it news. PowerPoint, it turns out, is software. Yes! Software! Tool! Same thing! If there's one thing I implore you to remember it's this: software should encourage exploration and invention, it shouldn't define your solution because of its constraints. This is precisely where PowerPoint users go off the rails. They mistake the map for the territory.

What comes out of PowerPoint isn't your presentation but instead some artifacts that constitute a part of your presentation. While PowerPoint helps you to produce a final physical document, you could do pretty much the same thing with some sheets of paper and a Sharpie. In fact, maybe that's where you should start. That way you won't get caught up in the format for the trees.

Novice and even intermediate users are more likely to stick with the easiest solution and explore software capabilities when they have more time. The hard truth? There will never be more time. But there is good news here, too. You don't need to be a PowerPoint ninja in order to put together an excellent presentation. But if you're going to use it, you might as well know some of the cool things it can do. Why? Because believe it or not, PowerPoint can be the swiss army knife of presentation tools, you just have to know when and how to deploy the spoon or the corkscrew. If you feel like it, you can insert flash movies and segue between various media; you can modify templates or create your own; and you can insert audio and change timing. It is extraordinarily effective and powerful software—in the right hands. Could those hands be yours? Possibly. But it's more complicated than mere software capabilities.

I'd like to suggest that you get good at presentations by being good at presenting. This seems like a tautology but it's not. A PowerPoint deck does not a performance make. Your tools should aid your presentation, not constitute it in its entirety. Theme, structure, story, pacing—remember those? Start there. And recognizing that there are cognitive benefits to the odd experience as well as the familiar one, I proffer this tidbit of knowledge: we're better at recalling something out of the ordinary because our minds pore over it a bit more before filing it away. Memory is not quite as simple as I'm writing about here (few psychological findings are), but there you have it: oddity can be your presentation friend.

To help you achieve memory-worthy oddity in a PowerPoint-driven world consider this wacky idea: give your entire presentation sans PowerPoint. That's right, without the crutch of templated software. Go old school and create graphics on the fly that explain and define your data. Draw them with a Sharpie on an acetate during your presentation. Think of it: you, a Sharpie, some acetates, and an overhead projector. Scary. Exciting. Scary exciting. Creating something with your audience in realtime, now that's advanced presentation skillz.

So, the next time you find yourself responsible for a presentation, remember this—you and your knowledge are the show.

A little aside regarding this essay: PowerPoint as a tool is so often misused that it's easy to critique without much thought. Consequently, this little critical essay was incredibly difficult to write. Deeper thought of the tool surfaced the problems inherent in snap judgment and belittling categorization.

Instead, upon reflection, PowerPoint begged for more nuanced interpretation of possibilities—in particular acceptance and understanding of a generally mishandled and misunderstood software as an unwieldy power tool in inexpert hands.

PowerPoint is the kind of tool that should make you want to take the time to read the manual from cover to cover, or watch an expert use it first so you don't slice off a finger or two in your haste to accomplish your task. But more often than not it is used as a primitive hatchet to hack through rough data and fashion crude information assemblages. Sad, really.

Carla Casilli Talk to me at cmcasilli at gmail dot com.