Too much of a good thing
By John‑Paul Flintoff
A few months ago, Steve McDermott arrived at a breakfast meeting in
region of the
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
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
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"