How to Put Lipstick on the PowerPoint Pig?

Presentation skills coach and fellow blogger  Olivia Mitchell has asked me and many others to comment on what, in our business, apparently passes for a controversy: how can we make PowerPoint better?  You probably missed this controversy if you are part of the following group: business people who are trying to accomplish things.

Let me summarize this distracting tempest in the graphic design teapot.  For several years, a group of graphic designers have been rightly trashing PowerPoint and the busy slides it tends to produce.

Garr Reynolds at Presentation Zen, Nancy Duarte at Duarte Design, and Edward Tufte (the granddaddy of PowerPoint haters)  have been hammering on the misuse of PowerPoint for years.   Many graphic artists have pushed for a minimalist approach using big pictures and very few words. These slides are quite attractive and it’s easy to see why artists love them.  They’re very “arty” looking. 

Now comes the inevitable backlash to this minimalist approach from writer and internet marketing consultant Laura Bergells. On her PowerPoint blog, Maniactive she wrote: 

The current PowerPoint design fashion vogue is overly simplistic, and panders almost completely to the right side of the brain. Since one of our chief presentation objectives is to persuade, why is this a problem?

Using only right brain techniques to persuade is emotionally manipulative. Oh, it’s highly effective, all right, but it’s propaganda, nonetheless! Appealing only to the right side of the brain is less than truthful — it lies by omission of key facts. 

Audiences are getting more savvy.  We’re getting more suspicious. We’re asking harder questions. We’re tired of lying, half-truths, and crass emotional manipulation by corporate leaders, politicians, and news media outlets.

So there you have it. First there is a well-deserved backlash against PowerPoint’s tendency to get too complex.   Now comes a backlash to the backlash arguing that we’ve gotten too simple.

When it comes to PowerPoint, I suppose I come down in the “simpler is better” category.  And I do think that visuals are helpful. We help our clients with slides and flip charts when they are appropriate.  I use them myself in my presentations.

But ultimately my position on PowerPoint is this: it’s largely irrelevant to whether you accomplish your goals. That’s because PowerPoint and other visuals, now matter how graphically pleasing, don’t inspire audiences, sell ideas, or win business. That’s done by the speaker. If he or she has a well-crafted message that focuses simply on the listeners’ needs, and if it’s delivered well, then the presentation is going to be a success regardless of what slides you have. 

Does anyone remember the Barack Obama’s slides?  Colin Powell’s?  Ronald Reagan’s? What about Steve Jobs? Sure he uses a minimalist slide approach. But the reason he’s so good has nothing to do with his slides.  He’s great because he knows how to tell a story and deliver it. Take away his slides and he is still great. If you don’t agree, check out his much praised graduation speech at Stanford.

This debate is a symptom of a larger problem. That problem is that business people waste too much time crafting slides rather than doing what will really make their presentation succeed: seeking to understand the audience, telling a good story, and rehearsing.

Here’s what I’d like to see going forward. Let’s start creating presentations by taking out a blank sheet of paper and writing down what we want to accomplish and what our audience cares about. Then let’s decide what our core message is, deciding what three key messages we really want our audience to remember. Then let’s see if we have some interesting and relevant stories to support our points. 

Then let’s spend a little time thinking about whether slides are even necessary. If they are, then let’s spend a little time creating slides.

But let’s also keep in mind that slides don’t grow businesses. Connecting with audiences and colleagues and business partners and customers is what grows businesses. And to do that you need a clear message, a style that connects, and lot of rehearsal.

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