Power point, il male e le presentazioni senza fine

Nella mia professione faccio largo uso di presentazioni , spesso  multimediali, tengo corsi di formazione sulle tecniche di presentazione, assisto a presentazioni (più o meno noiose….). E mi sono già occupato in passato di tecniche di presentazione e problemi/opportunità correlati, soprattutto con riferimento al Programma di Presentazione Per Eccellenza, Power Point, croce e delizia della vita del consulente (e dell’uomo marketing, dello studente, del docente, di chiunque si sia trovato a dover illustrare delle idee),  ma sino ad ora non avevo mai letto un intervento così competente, divertente e divertito come quello  – che condivido riportandolo integralmente-  di David Silverman sul blog della Harvard Business Review: per me è  una…pietra miliare nelle dissertazioni a proposito di efficacia della presentazioni! E altrettanto imperdibile l’articolo del NYT che origina le sue riflessioni…buona lettura!

PowerPoint Is Evil, Redux

The New York Times just ran an article about the evils of PowerPoint. What strikes me about the piece is the reporter’s apparent lack of PowerPoint experience. She expresses incredulity that generals spend their time reviewing slide decks that were slaved over for days by junior officers. Perhaps Elisabeth Bumiller has been fortunate enough to have never worked in corporate America, and the New York Times building is a heaven on Earth that is not infested with bullet points. I can only speculate.

As for the rest of us, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: PowerPoint has consumed the best years of too many young lives. But the real problems aren’t the ones the NYT article calls out. PowerPoint is fundamentally flawed because it intrinsically isn’t suited to the tasks it is put to.

In the article, and in the complaints of the military commanders it quotes, one of the chief issues is the use of skimpy bullet points rather than complete, analytically rigorous documents to convey intricate ideas. (The logical extreme that Bumiller offers up: What if lawyers were to present briefs to the Supreme Court in PowerPoint?)

The other issue, somewhat at odds with the first, is the packing of too much information into each slide. The example given in an Armed Forces Journal article cited in the NYT piece is a “quad chart,” which is four slides in one. (I am very glad to have never met such a beast in the field myself.) The highly complex slide appears for a few seconds before a puzzled audience and then disappears in a blink, replaced by another, equally detail-riddled slide that would take a sane person a week to decipher.

While I agree overall that PowerPoint is abysmal for communication, I disagree with the view that these particular issues are the root of the tree of PowerPoint evil. They’re merely symptoms of the deeper pathogenesis of slide-deck-itis. The easily communicable components of miscommunication, if you will. The real problem with PowerPoint is users’ unreasonable expectations. Simply put, people try to do way too much with it. It is the metaphorical hammer for every information nail.

Wrong: A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words
By way of example, here’s a picture I made in PowerPoint:

It took me about four hours of fiddling and fighting with PowerPoint to make the picture. (Just reformatting it for this blog post took me 30 minutes.) Because I knew that people would expect a graphic, I had to spend the time. Multiply that time by all the presentation graphics in the country and all the fighting with colors, line connectors, grid alignment, fonts, etc., and you have a drain on the U.S. economy that makes Ross Perot’s NAFTA-inspired “giant sucking sound” seem like the squeak of a mouse.

Now here’s some text describing the same concept, which I wrote in five minutes:

Topic maps can be used to identify and extract snippets from one or multiple documents. For example, a topic map for desserts could be used to show where these treats are mentioned in restaurant reviews, customer comments, and menus.

Turns out the picture was worth only 39 words.

Wrong: PowerPoint Is for Reading
Because PowerPoints are often sent out before meetings and also distributed far and wide afterward, there’s a compulsion to put all the extra context in the slides. Bullet points, agendas, appendices — they’re all ladled on in an attempt to make the deck stand on its own, without the presenter.

But when it comes to the eventual presentation itself, the goal is to make people pay attention to the speaker, not stare at the screen. And putting every word of the oration into the slides (or even the slide notes) makes for a very boring lecture. Steve Jobs knows this, and at his Apple events he uses just a few words per slide, and a minimum of graphics.

Making PowerPoint decks serve as reading material, reference material, and presentation support means there’s no way they can ever do anything but a bad job at two of the three.

Wrong: Brevity Above All Else
I’ve written about the problems of cutting too much text. When a PowerPoint presentation is reduced to just one word per slide, a la Steve Jobs, you have to have the presenter present. This is great if you can convince your audience not to expect the deck the day before or after the meeting. But it won’t work when your steering committee asks to see all slides in advance.

A Lose-Lose-Lose Situation?
If you expect people to read your slides without getting the benefit of hearing your voice, you’ll put in everything you can think of. And honestly, if you’re putting that much in, why not just make it a Word document? Well, you can’t, because your manager plans to show the slides at the Big Meeting.

Thus, you cannot win. PowerPoint will make a muddle of your ideas, and you have no choice in the matter.

What do you think? Is there any way to make PowerPoint a tool to be used for good? Should we put a disclaimer on decks that says, “For Visual Support Only,” or “For Reference Only,” or “For Reading at Your Leisure, Not for Presentation, Ever, Unless You Want to Bore Everyone to Tears”?

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