Journal: News & Comment

Tuesday, September 20, 2005
# 9:45:00 PM:

Manager Tools takes on PowerPoint

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Longtime readers will know that I have a thing (or, in fact many things) against Microsoft PowerPoint. Nearly three years ago, I wrote "Why PowerPoint is Like a Sauna in a Saab," in which I wrote that "People get so caught up with the software that they forget about the presentation—or the audience, which is the most important thing." I also emphasized that a good presentation is about telling a story, not showing slides.

Twenty-one slides, one slide, no slides

I've thought about it a lot since then, since I do give presentations fairly often. Over time, I've come to rely less and less on slides at all—these days, when I give a talk about websites, or a seminar on Microsoft Word, I don't show slides. I want to involve my audience in a discussion, as well as presenting my argument (i.e. telling my story). So back in January 2003 I had 21 slides for a 90-minute talk. Later that year I was down to one, and that was just because it was a relaxing photo. Now I have a web browser ready, and maybe a few documents to open. No PowerPoint, and no slides of any sort. (If the audience needs reference material, by the way, I make handouts.)

But—and here's the key point—I am perfectly prepared to give any presentation without a computer at all. I might use a flipchart and dissasemble a laptop or something, perhaps. Or maybe I'll just talk, occasionally drawing something on a chalkboard or dry-erase easel. I have my own outline for my presentation, either on paper or in my head, but usually there's no need to put it on the screen for the audience to see (I'm happy to put it online, of course).

Take it all the way

The Manager Tools podcast I've mentioned recently is a great example. This week Mark and Mike talked about PowerPoint, with some excellent advice: use big fonts, black on white only, a maximum of three slides per ten minutes of talking, no sound or animation or transitions—and tell a story. Bingo. But I don't think they went far enough.

I mean, think about it: given the limits they set, why use PowerPoint at all? You could do just as well with a web-based tool like Eric Meyer's S5, or (to be honest) a single, scrolling word processing document, like the overhead roll my grade 9 math teacher used. Or, like my dentist father-in-law did in May 2003, you could just have a bunch of interesting (and sometimes disturbing) images—fascinating by themselves, but enhanced by his knowledge and discussion. Sort of like those slide shows people used to do... with slides!

No slides, no visuals, no problem

I get the impression that Manager Tools will make some of the same points in future shows: this week, they were simply acknowledging that most people in business use PowerPoint, regardless of whether they should, and later they'll get into the nitty-gritty of telling a story, with PowerPoint or without. But think about one more thing: their podcast is fascinating, useful, and informative. I listen to it for a half hour every week. And it has no slides—it's basically an MP3 radio show. I can't even see Mark and Mike. I don't know what they look like. I don't care! Does that detract from the information they present?

Nope. That doesn't say much in PowerPoint's favour, I'm afraid.

P.S. The Manager Tools guys heavily recommend Barbara Minto's Pyramid Principle ($105 Cdn!) as perhaps the best book ever on writing and communicating in a business context. I'd never heard about it before, but I may try to pick it up, or at least find it at the library.


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