HOW CAN A SUPPOSEDLY CREATIVE INDUSTRY BE DICTATED BY A MEDIUM THAT BROADCASTS POINT AFTER POINT ON SLIDE AFTER SLIDE AFTER SLIDE? STRATEGIST ALICE WALKER MAKES THE CASE FOR BLOWING UP THE ‘POWERPOINT PRESENTATION’ AND STARTING AGAIN.
You might say that a bad strategist blames her tools. Surely a blank presentation can only be as shoddy as the stuff that goes in it, or the person who presents it?
Not so. PowerPoint itself is inherently evil*: it makes our arguments lousier, our audiences bored, and it’s stopping us from doing any real thinking. Now let me explain…
*NB, for the purposes of this article I’m including Google Slides, Keynote, and all the rest of its hideous progeny under the banner of ‘PowerPoint’. That means you, Prezi.
It’s the least engaging means of presenting information ever invented.
As a strategist, your job relies on engaging people who don’t give a shit. Creatives don’t give a shit about your brief. Clients don’t want to listen to you waffle on about advertising. Audiences don’t give a flying shit about your brand. So what we do is hit them with the dreariest medium ever created: the “deck”.
Nothing of any interest, in the entire history of mankind, has ever been conveyed by PowerPoint. That’s why no one ever walks into a room with a ‘Today’s Agenda’ slide up on the screen and thinks ‘OH BOY, IS THIS GONNA BE GOOD OR IS THIS GONNA BE GOOD?’. PowerPoint is an inherently tedious tool, so from the outset your audience is going to be hitting the ‘ESC’ key.
Not only that, it can inhibit the way information is taken in. Science time! A psychological study said that when we try and switch between hearing a lecture and reading stuff off a screen, it tires our poor homo sapien brain out. The study says you’d be far better off showing some images to accompany it, or just not at all. In fact, instead of a swanky PowerPoint, you may as well present a deck comprised entirely of pictures of baby turtles: it would be cuter, and more useful.
It kills thought.
PowerPoint is a blunt instrument. There are some things that work well presented as a PowerPoint (note to self: not a eulogy), but there are many that don’t. You can often end up with an over-complication, where an argument that could have fitted on one page gets agonisingly stretched across twenty or so slides. Or, and perhaps more worryingly, you get an over-simplification.
Very few arguments are linear – only the most simple ones. Very few business problems are that simple. It’s not always possible to present an argument with ‘one thought per slide’, nor is it an effective way of going about it. PowerPoint encourages bullet-pointed thinking. Arguments that follow a single, relentless path without room for discursion. Rigidly hierarchical statements that must be accepted wholesale or not at all, without thought to how you got to those statements or the relationships between them.
Also, believing you can present any given argument in the exact same way is foolish. It would be like making every presentation you ever did in interpretative dance.
Not just foolish, it can also be dangerous. In 2003, one Colin Powell made a 45-slide PowerPoint presentation to George Bush and friends in favour of invading Iraq. Yes folks, you heard it correctly: PowerPoint is responsible for the Iraq War. ‘I see you’re trying to stage a controversial military intervention, can I help you with that?’
It gets in the way of doing actual strategy.
How many hours of your day do you spend making slides? The answer is too many. The painstaking process of selecting the right typeface, making sure all your text boxes line up, finding the perfect full bleed image for the chapter headings… ‘Baby, stop it.’
I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve attempted to hide inadquate thinking with a shiny deck, and I’m sure I’m not alone. If you’re spending your time trying to make boring ideas look interesting, wouldn’t you be better off making the ideas more interesting in the first place?
If someone was to ask me what my job was, I may as well say ‘Maker of Slides’. It’s becoming a strategist’s only direct creative output. That’s fucking depressing. Surely finding new ways to make arguments might at least brighten our unavoidable slouch towards death, and perhaps lead to some new kinds of thinking in the process.
I’ll confess, I’m worried about how I’d fill my days if I wasn’t spending them making slides, but I’m prepared to break the loom on this one and I’m asking you to join me. If I was being a bit Marxist about this, I’d say that John Maynard Keynes said, thanks to technology, we’d be cruising along on a 15-hour work week right now – and instead we’re shackled to the slide. But I’m not a Marxist, so I won’t. Speaking of which, if advertising is the poetry of capitalism, PowerPoint would have us all writing Mr Men books.
But if not slides, then what?
For those who don’t personally enjoy interpretative dance, luckily there are many ways of presenting information. Here are just a few, demonstrated ironically through the medium of bullet points:
- Print or photocopy some hand-outs. Bad for the environment, but potentially better than all the methane produced by the guff-filled presentations I have witnessed (and written).
- Write or draw something on a whiteboard. Great for the environment – and, if done properly, could make you look like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting.
- Do a Jeff Bezos and ban PowerPoint all together—write your idea out in prose (remember that?) and get everyone to read it beforehand, then spend the meeting discussing it.
- Just like, uh, talk them through it? Think of all the best speeches you’ve ever heard. I bet not a single one of them used PowerPoint. In fact, rendering famous speeches into PowerPoint can produce some pretty silly results.
The Gettysburg Address as PowerPoint. (Source: norvig.com)
And, to look beyond advertising for a moment (‘my eyes!), we need to get away from the kind of thinking PowerPoint would have us do. Unlike some of the greatest hits you can think of, it would probably be quite easy to present many of our current world leaders’ speeches via PowerPoint. They often follow a strict, linear narrative. The sequence of thinking must be bought in total without reference to causality.
Now more than ever we need space for the side-notes in an argument. The ‘and howevers’. The other voices. It’s no coincidence that top US army dude Brigadier General McMaster likened the popularity of using PowerPoint in the military to an ‘internal threat’ – and he wasn’t talking about the use of Comic Sans:
‘It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control. Some problems are not bullet-izable.’
So the next time someone says they want the slides by Tuesday, just whip out your dancing shoes and show them how real thinking gets done.