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Story Tools

I Loathe PowerPoint
by Coleman bio

JANUARY 31, 2003 -- I know it's heresy, but I can't help myself. I am so over PowerPoint that I've come to dread attending presentations or workshops for fear of finding the ubiquitous beast looming once more on a screen before me.

Let me be perfectly honest here. I do not care how clever you might be in manipulating PowerPoint - your colorful slides, your dramatically dipping, zooming and expanding text boxes, your catchy sound clips and dancing web-bots. I would much rather attend a presentation with a speaker who has something to say and knows how to say it -- (or, even better, who knows how to facilitate a good discussion on a topic) -- than watch one more person read from PowerPoint bullet points.

My growing distaste for this exhausted presentation package has been gnarling at me for quite some time. It was with great pleasure, then, when I encountered a Fortune magazine column early last year titled "Ban It Now! Friends Don't Let Friends Use PowerPoint." It was an even greater pleasure when just last month I happened upon a front page article in the Chicago Sunday Tribune, "Is PowerPoint the Devil?"

At last, perhaps, it is safe for me to come out of the PowerPoint closet. I loathe PowerPoint!


For many reasons. Among them is that I charge PowerPoint with the homogenization of public discourse at meetings. At some point at the beginning of the PC revolution, someone in Redmond, Washington decided that all presentations should be conducted with a series of colorful sequential slides, and that all topics should be reduced to a series of bullet points. Just as the shift to sound-bytes on the evening news has dumbed down newscasts, the universal adoption of bulleted presentations has dumbed down the exploration of real issues.

We live and work in a complex world. We must constantly contend with shades of meaning that don't allow us to categorize everything we encounter and learn into clearly marked white and black buckets. The pervasive use of PowerPoint, however, fosters the misguided notion that we live in a fantasy world where simple truths can be proclaimed and reduced to a few catchy words on screen. "What if ...?" my mind screams, as the speaker quickly advances to the next slide. "What about ...?" But the slides progress too quickly, my thoughts remain unspoken, the certainty presented by the shining images remains unbroken.

And what's up with this allegiance to the sequential? In my experience learning is often not sequential. It shouldn't be sequential. PowerPoint forces a presenter to organize ideas from A to Z, and the walls just might collapse if he or she strays to point M before presenting idea L.

The best learning experiences I have encountered have been driven by the natural curiosity of participants who work together in a collegial environment. And the even better moments occur when we suddenly veer off track into the wilderness of shared ideas that are expressed by a group of interested people. On the other hand, watching even a celebrated guru step through one dull slide after another while leading an audience like dimwitted sheep through a pre-arranged course, gives me the hives. Way before the end of the lecture, I already know what's at the end of that chute of colorful slides -- it's the slaughter of intelligence.

Recently I was invited to Vienna to present a short workshop on technology to a small but elite group of congress and tradeshow organizers. Shortly before my trip, my host called to inquire whether I would be bringing my own computer for my PowerPoint presentation. When I said I wasn't going to use PowerPoint, the silence on the line was palpable. I quietly and calmly asked, "Is that a problem?" It was, he said. He didn't think it would be professional to make a presentation to this group without PowerPoint.

Oh my aching intellect.

I relented, and said I'd see what I could do.

What I could do was ultimately nothing. As I thought and thought about it, there was no way I could accomplish what I wanted to do with this group, within the confines of PowerPoint.

Preceding my workshop in Vienna a panel of airline executives discussed the state of their industry and explained how airlines can work more effectively with congress organizers. Up went the PowerPoint slides, of course. The first executive read the first slide verbatim. The second executive read the second slide. Then it was back to the first executive, who read the third slide.

You get the idea. This went on for 35 minutes. Anyone whose brain had been functioning before they entered the room, was comatose by the time the third slide hit the screen. At the end of the presentation, the executives congratulated themselves and each other for their fine presentation, and asked if there were any questions. I had a question, but I didn't ask it: "How can you be so cruel as to force human beings to sit through an experience like this?"

Now it was my turn. I put up one slide. On it was one word. The word was "PROMISE". I opened by saying: "Today, we are going to talk about the promise of technology. We'll talk about promises made, promises broken, promises kept, and promises yet to come." Then I turned off the projector. And for the next forty minutes, we talked -- together -- about technology. From the lively discussion, I learned as much, if not more, than I imparted.

Is there a place for PowerPoint? Yes, reluctantly, I will admit that there is. It may be a handy tool for third grade social study reports, and kids find it fun and easy to use. It may be a handy way to interrupt an otherwise human-dimensioned program, to display some important facts, figures or charts. For certain scientific or technical presentations, it may be a good way to display data. Perhaps.

But ... and this is the limb I choose to go out on ... it is not a good way to engage an audience. More often, it is used as a crutch by poor speakers who focus on the slides on the screen rather than on the people in the audience.

One parting thought: What's up with conference organizers who demand that all presenters use PowerPoint, and who further demand that they all use the same PowerPoint template? Talk about mind-numbing conformity! Should every session at a conference REALLY be like every other session at the conference?

Enough. I feel better now. Just please, if you ever invite me to speak, don't ask me to use PowerPoint.

Author Bio

Coleman works from his cabin in the woods in the rolling hills of southwest Wisconsin, where he variously: teaches distance learning courses in meeting planning for Roosevelt University and Meeting Professionals International, produces maple syrup in the spring, designs online registration web sites for meetings and conventions, acts and directs in his own theater company, programs custom database applications for meeting planners, and operates a private guest house where nature takes a vacation. He is a past International President of Meeting Professionals International, and the founder of MPI's CMM (Certificate in Meeting Management) program.

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