Too much of a good thing

By John‑Paul Flintoff

Published: October 8 2002 18:40 | Last Updated: October 8 2002 18:40


A few months ago, Steve McDermott arrived at a breakfast meeting in

Harrogate's Majestic Hotel to teach presentation skills to the northern

region of the Institute of Directors. He opened his laptop and attempted to

launch PowerPoint, the ubiquitous presentational software from Microsoft.

After two minutes of fumbling, he looked flustered. Members of the audience

shuffled uncomfortably, or coughed with embarrassment. A voice from the back

called out: "Bloody hell ‑ I thought you would be better than this."


So he stopped what he was doing and addressed his audience. "You've probably

all experienced death by PowerPoint. I don't know which is worse ‑ when it

works or when it doesn't." Then he walked out of the room, returned with a

baseball bat and smashed the computer to bits.

Mr McDermott, a Leeds‑based consultant who styles himself "Europe's

funniest, most insightful motivational speaker", insists that his routine,

though contrived ‑ and expensive ‑ serves a useful purpose. It teaches the

audience that, contrary to popular opinion, presentations need not always be

delivered through the medium of PowerPoint.


At a conservative estimate, PowerPoint can be found on 250m computers

worldwide. According to Microsoft, 30m PowerPoint presentations take place

every day: 1.25m every hour. A spokesman for Office Angels, one of London's

larger recruitment agencies, says PowerPoint ranks second only to MS Word

among the programs with which temporary secretaries are expected to be

familiar ‑ just ahead of Excel.


The program is not restricted to office use: PowerPoint has also appeared in

churches, at schools and colleges and even for use at family occasions. But

business presentations account for the greater part of its commercial

success. That is because many executives are expected to use PowerPoint as a

matter of course, whether they are addressing colleagues or clients.


Alastair Grant, another consultant who advises on presentation skills ‑

through his London‑based company, GPB Consulting ‑ says managers are

sometimes regarded with suspicion if they do not do that: "They're worried

that people might think, 'This person hasn't prepared lots of visuals.

That's a mark against them.'" Mr Grant has coined a term to describe this

corporate malaise: visual aids disease.


Brendan Barns, founder of Speakers for Business, believes that many people

use the program as some kind of comfort blanket. Watching them, he says, can

be like watching classical actors perform Shakespeare with the script in

their hands. Rather than preparing audiences for the slide they're about to

show, these presenters typically use slides as prompts, reading aloud

whatever appears on screen. Since this often consists of bullet points, the

process renders speakers unappealingly robotic ‑ and redundant, since

members of the audience could just as well read the slides in their absence.


The only time it is worth reading slides aloud, says Mr Grant, is when

speakers address an audience more familiar with another language: the words

on screen help viewers to follow what is being said. Otherwise, he says,

"Senior executives should never be narrators at slide shows. Can you imagine

Tony Blair using PowerPoint at the Labour party conference? Of course not."


To be fair, PowerPoint does have its uses. It is generally acknowledged ‑

even by Mr McDermott ‑ that speakers, no matter how eloquent, cannot compete

with slides that present graphical information. A map is generally easier to

grasp than spoken directions and the same applies to financial data in

graphs or engineering solutions presented in technical drawings.


More generally, graphical effects can be overused. Jim Carroll, London‑based

deputy chairman of the advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, says he has

endured more than enough from "clip‑art fiends" who pepper their

presentations with the "not‑very‑amusing cartoons" pre‑supplied by

Microsoft. Another facility that is often overused combines visual with

sound effects: a key word whizzes into place on a slide, halting to the

sound of screeching brakes.


PowerPoint was designed so that the originators of content could forgo the

services of graphic designers but to prevent excesses, says Mr Carroll,

Bartle Bogle Hegarty retains a one‑man unit to improve its presentations.

("My job is to tart them up," says his colleague, Philip Kendrew.)


Mr McDermott, who previously worked in advertising, remembers that before

PowerPoint became widely available it was necessary to make real slides.

Each slide cost money and that helped to keep the numbers down.

"But with PowerPoint," he says, "any idiot sitting at a PC can decide, 'Oh,

I'll have another 50.'"


He is not the only one who looks back favourably on life before PowerPoint.

The writer Ian Parker offered the following observation in The New Yorker

magazine recently: "Before there were presentations, there were

conversations, which were a little like presentations but used fewer bullet

points, and no one had to dim the lights."


Mr Parker's thesis was that PowerPoint produces a deadening effect on

thought itself. Fancy graphics whiz past audiences at speed, in darkness

that encourages people to nod off: altogether, the process encourages users

to pass off badly constructed arguments and hackneyed ideas.


At worst, he says, middle managers can simply add their own company's logo

to ready‑made presentations, which are provided as part of the software

package under the rubric of "AutoContent". "A rare example," Mr Parker

concluded, hardly less fierce than Mr McDermott with his baseball bat, "of a

product named in outright mockery of its target customers."




The best use of PowerPoint can be summarised in bullet points:

• Reduce your use of slides to a minimum

• Don't compete with your slides. Explain first, then show them

• Use graphs, sketches and maps to convey complex data

•To keep the attention of your audience, use blank slides

You don't need a slide to announce "The End"