by Mark Gibbs

Down with PowerPoint? Never!

Nov 22, 20114 mins
Consumer ElectronicsIT LeadershipIT Strategy

In most organizations PowerPoint is a primary way to deliver information, but how should it be used and managed? CIO blogger Mark Gibbs has an answer, and it's a good one.

PowerPoint presentations, as we all know at the cost of endless hours sitting in dim rooms trying not to nod off, have become a primary way to convey all sorts of information in the many organizations. And that’s the problem with most PowerPoint presentations: They are intensely boring!

What’s strange is that despite endless how-to articles, presenters still keep making the same mistakes over and over again…which is weird because we all know a good presentation when we see one.

The rules of making a good presentation are really quite simple:

  • No more than seven “items” (that’s “things” to pay attention) on a slide (three is preferred, one is perfect).
  • Use images instead of words wherever possible.
  • Know your audience; don’t use terms or concepts they won’t understand.
  • Don’t read your slides; use them as notes or placeholders.
  • Don’t use colors that clash (e.g. black and blue) or that wash out when projected (e.g. pale blue on white) or fonts that can’t be read unless you’re sitting three feet from the screen.
  • For each key point say it once then say it again–then say it once more.
  • Stick to the topic.
  • Keep it as succinct as possible given the allotted time and topic.
  • Keep it moving.

You are free to bend or break these rules as you please but you should only do so when you are sure you know what you’re doing and have a good reason(my justification for adding visual complexity is to ensure that the point of a slide can be grasped by attendees reviewing the slide deck after the presentation).

You want to see a great presentation? Check out the style of Stanford law professor, Lawrence Lessig. Lessig nails it by being succinct, organized, and polished. He uses simple slides, keeps the pace right, and sticks to his topic. Check out Lessig’s video archive to see how presentations should be done.

But some people think that PowerPoint is, if not the Devil’s spawn, at least a very bad idea.

For example, Edward Tufte, professor emeritus of political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale University wrote a paper titled “The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint” which he introduces with the following:

“In corporate and government bureaucracies, the standard method for making a presentation is to talk about a list of points organized onto slides projected up on the wall. For many years, overhead projectors lit up transparencies, and slide projectors showed high-resolution 35mm slides. Now “slideware” computer programs for presentations are nearly everywhere. Early in the 21st century, several hundred million copies of Microsoft PowerPoint were turning out trillions of slides each year. Alas, slideware often reduces the analytical quality of presentations. In particular, the popular PowerPoint templates (ready-made designs) usually weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis.”

Tufte makes a great argument against the use of “slideware” and some organizations have embraced this reasoning and tried to ban Powerpoint altogether.

For example, in Switzerland earlier this year the Anti-PowerPoint Party (APPP), a real political party, got a lot of press when they claimed “that €350bn could be saved globally each year by ditching the scourge of public speaking” and proposed a government ban on the use of PowerPoint in Switzerland. The APPP’s alternative? Going back to the flipchart (note that the APPP failed to get enough support to contend in the Swiss elections).

Despite the likes of Tufte and the APPP, the reality is that PowerPoint presentations will never go away; they have become part of corporate culture.

So, what do you do with all those presentations that your organization is generating, the ones that breed like wire coat hangers in dark closets with each staff member generating their own version or, heaven help you, multiple versions, of every slidedeck?

The answer? A Web service called Slideshare. With Slideshare you can upload your PowerPoint decks and, optionally, make them available for download.

Slideshare lets people share the decks (Slideshare supports all of the standard social networking services) and presentations can be embedded on websites, on Facebook, on LinkedIn and in blogs, if you enable the functionality. Slideshare also offers a website optimized for mobile use.

There are four levels of Slideshare membership: the free Basic version, which is ad supported and allows for unlimited uploads; the Silver level ($19 per month/$190 per annum), which removes the ads and includes private presentation sharing, analytics, and videos; and the Platinum service ($249 per month/$2,490 per annum), which among other features, adds branding and regulatory compliance.

If you’re interested, check out a few presentations I have stored on Slideshare.

Consumerology Opportunity: If you need to create an easy, effective library of your organization’s PowerPoint slide decks, Slideshare is the answer: It’s elegant, cost-effective, and very reasonably priced.