• Greg Ellis

A point about PowerPoint

I can still remember when I first discovered PowerPoint as a teenager. I created a vast interactive presentation covering hundreds of slides that was basically a Pick-A-Path Adventure (remember those?). It seemed like such an awesome toy, loaded with flashy animations and the ability to embed all sorts of stuff. That would have been more than 20 years ago and the uses to which it is put are still pretty much the same as when it first started - although there probably aren't too many Pick-A-Path business presentations created.

What HAS happened though is that it has turned from toy to chore, from something fresh and innovative to something that is essentially an expected crutch for presentations and often the source of laziness, stress, or both. I've been MCing conferences for almost as long as there's been PowerPoint and the number of times I've heard the panicked cries of "where are the slides?!" or heard the disclaimer that "John (or insert other name here) did these slides and I haven't really had a chance to look through to them so I'll just wing it and talk to them as they come up" is beyond my ability to remember. It seems to me during this time that PowerPoint has homogenised presentations to the point where they often lack meaning and impact. And yet people still persist with them!

As an ex-teacher I was always pestered by students, and their parent, for handouts to summarise a particular lesson or topic. I always resisted these. By giving someone a handout - you've done all the thinking for them. Your lesson has gone through the food processor of your mind and you've spat out an easily digestible goo for everyone else to consume. PowerPoint often falls into this trap. By summarising the "key points" in slides you are processing what you believe to be the important facts for everyone in the room. Just because you choose to emphasise Q4 performance in the slide and mention low staff-engagement scores only in passing doesn't mean that those priorities are shared by everyone else. Yet we are so conditioned to "take away" the bulleted points in a slide that all the thinking is done for us and other points are missed or forgotten. Let people think for themselves and process the information for themselves once in a while. A sure way to get people more engaged in a process is if they think they need to think for themselves.

Thinking for yourself encourages engagement and ownership. We are all told this and believe it in theory but when it comes to the crunch the slides do the talking and we speak to them, which often is really little more than reading the information on screen that everyone can already see for themselves. Its nothing more than spoon-feeding.

So if our presentations are important enough that they must be shared with people then why not make sure that this important information has impact. Ditch the PowerPoint.

Why doesn't this happen more often?

Becuase PowerPoint is the way things are done. Many people have had PowerPoint as a communication tool for their entire working lives - its part of the furniture. But furniture is one of the first things to get burnt in a revolution (at least if Les Mis is to be believed). There's nothing like something a bit different to get people to take notice.

Because PowerPoint is a crutch. Public speaking is still very much a fear for many people and when you start to think your job might be on the line that fear gets ratcheted up a notch. By removing PowerPoint people might prepare a little harder and get a bit of a rush of energy and inspiration that makes things memorable.

Both of these factors come, at least in part, from the culture of perfection that permeates business. Things need to be perfect all of the time. Granted accuracy is important when you are filling out the number of zeroes in a bank transfer, just ask the couple that got $10 mill out of the bank through an error. But slipping up in a presentation isn't going to end the world, getting the words wrong or losing your place won't bring anyone down. it is often the imperfections that make things memorable and in a business where the culture is supportive and recognises the imperfections in people these moments of imperfection can often be things that bring a team together. If people need a powerpoint presentation for a room of 8 people maybe something about your organisation's culture needs to change!

So how do you function without Powerpoint? Here are a few ideas about alternatives....

If something is important enough to say to people get the person who lives and breathes it the most to communicate it. They are the most knowledgable and the most invested in it. Get them to do it, even if they arent the most senior. Let their passion speak for itself.

If the message needs to be just right, spend some time on it. Get the presenter prepared and relaxed enough to deliver the message just right. Don't just rely on a slide to do it for you. Humans like to communicate with other humans, by and large, and most of us would rather hear a message from another human - not read it off a slide.

Deliver it differently. I've heard a complex engineering presentation delivered as a rap, I've seen chat show type interviews, I've seen choral pieces - I've seen all sorts of things. And whilst this may seem "lightweight" not every message is a grave and important as you may think and making it memorable cements it in people's minds. A creative way of presenting a point also sends a message out about a business' culture. It encourages creativity, especially if things aren't presented as a novelty.

Have a discussion rather than a presentation. Encourage a fluid dialogue between "audience" and "presenter". That way points that important to both sides are teased out and useful input can come from unexpected places. comes the plug....get a professional to do it. You didn't think you'd get all the way through a blog post and not get some sort of pitch. But it is true. Entrust your presentation and the message it contains with a professional to come up with an alternativbe delivery method or to deliver it for you, rther than PowerPoint. Yes there will be additional expense but if a message is important enough to get peole out of their everyday routine to hear then surely its important enough to make sure they remember it. Not everything has to be a massive production number (though we'll quite happily take those on), it could be as simple as getting in an outside facilitator to manage a discussion or getting someone to coach a presenter so that she or he feels confident in their material. We're happy to help with all of that because I really am a believer that PowerPoint has a narrow band of usefulness and that in this world of email and text messages we need to go back to more human, analogue, ways of getting our message across.

You could always tell when your teacher had clocked out at school when it came time to watch a video all afternoon and its the same with PowerPoint. We're in the business of breaking that pattern. Come have a chat.

#conference #creativity #audiences #powerpoint #entertainment

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