Why slides are too wordy

The problems with presentations are far more about the way that business presentations have evolved than the tools used.

An article by Elisabeth Bumiller in The New York Times about "death by PowerPoint" in the U.S. military has been making the rounds. The following excerpt is representative:

Commanders say that behind all the PowerPoint jokes are serious concerns that the program stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making. Not least, it ties up junior officers--referred to as PowerPoint Rangers--in the daily preparation of slides, be it for a Joint Staff meeting in Washington or for a platoon leader's pre-mission combat briefing in a remote pocket of Afghanistan.

As an industry analyst, I helped polish many, many slide decks. And I've created more than a few of my own. Some of the criticisms are certainly valid while others seem to me more about the nature of routine status meetings than the particular tool used to create material for those meetings.

Death by PowerPoint alice_c on flickr cc

It's not that PowerPoint and its competitors don't share any blame. Over time, they've gained features like gradient fills and shadows that encourage fiddling and the gratuitous use of graphical junk. Standard templates tend to the cluttered and garish. But the hierarchical bullets that are the target of many PowerPoint criticisms such as the following predate PowerPoint, indeed, predate personal computers:

Commanders say that the slides impart less information than a five-page paper can hold, and that they relieve the briefer of the need to polish writing to convey an analytic, persuasive point. Imagine lawyers presenting arguments before the Supreme Court in slides instead of legal briefs.

Captain Burke's essay in the Small Wars Journal also cited a widely read attack on PowerPoint in Armed Forces Journal last summer by Thomas X. Hammes, a retired Marine colonel, whose title, "Dumb-Dumb Bullets," underscored criticism of fuzzy bullet points; "accelerate the introduction of new weapons," for instance, does not actually say who should do so.

Ultimately, one of the reasons people like to use bullets is that it's a relatively easy way to structure a straightforward presentation, which may be fine for a routine meeting but probably isn't so good if you're trying to formulate a strategy or understand a problem.

Perhaps the biggest problem with most business presentations is that they're trying to do two things at the same time. They're "sliduments," to use a word coined by Garr Reynolds in his book, "Presentation Zen."

The problem is this. When your average business presentation is presented to someone, the primary leave-behind is usually the same slide deck, perhaps with some notes taken on it during the course of the presentation. Furthermore, while in an ideal world, the presenter would be capable of giving his pitch with no slide support whatsoever, the reality is that someone who only sort of knows the material often fills in at the last moment.

Both these factors push slides towards a worst-of-all-worlds state. They're still bullet points rather than more carefully crafted long-form text, but they have lots of bullet points because the slides need to be at least somewhat comprehensible in the absence of the actual presentation. Add to this the fact that bullets (and random stock images) are much easier to create than compelling and relevant graphics and you end up with slides that are doubtless all too familiar to just about everyone.

(As an aside, I find the graphic at the beginning of The New York Times article odd, as it doesn't have much to do with, and may even be in opposition to, the main point of the article. Complex and information-rich graphics have a role in particular circumstances. In any case, they tend to trump an endless march of bullet points.)

About the author

Gordon Haff is Red Hat's cloud evangelist although the opinions expressed here are strictly his own. He's focused on enterprise IT, especially cloud computing. However, Gordon writes about a wide range of topics whether they relate to the way too many hours he spends traveling or his longtime interest in photography.

 

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