Assessing when and where PowerPoint should be used.
As I sit here on a Sunday morning adding finishing touches to a slide deck I’ve been working on for the past week, I can’t help but admit that I’ve grown a love-hate relationship with PowerPoint. It’s the modus operandi for conveying any ideas, proposals, or post mortem for projects at work. I once had a colleague tell me, “If it’s not in a PowerPoint, it didn’t happen.” He was referring to an analysis that he was working on for his executive team and he made a valid point.
When it comes to communicating, you want to speak the language that is understood by all but what if there is a communication gap and ideas begin to get lost in translation? What if we as a society have grown too dependent on presentation software to the point where we have sacrificed creativity for becoming master deck builders?
“We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon,” Mr. Bezos wrote. “Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of ‘study hall.’”
Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, stated in 2018 that PowerPoint is banned from executive meetings. Bezos has stated that instead of presentation slides, he opens meetings with reading a six-page memo, pre-written like a descriptive story embracing narrative storytelling. While he states that this has enabled the “weirdest meeting culture” he counters that doing so enables his executives to carve time out to focus. I discussed this with a friend who works at Amazon and he elaborated by saying that writing a narrative requires the author to have done their homework and provides the audience a better opportunity to ensure the argument/position makes sense.
Another executive and CEO, Robert Glazer, founder of Acceleration Partners, incorporated Amazon’s strategy into his organization but made a slight tweak. While everyone is not required to read the memos during the meeting, there is a requirement to have read the memo prior. This has been cited to save valuable time in having everyone up to speed upon joining and having more time for strategic thinking.
In my experience, I believe PowerPoint serves as a valuable tool for summarizing thoughts and providing one-way communication. I‘ve used my slide deck as a takeaway document or supplemental material for meetings where everyone wasn’t in attendance or attendees to review later. I agree that narrative memos are good for having a well-thought-out dialogue and team discussion. During these sessions, ideas can be evaluated, and brainstorming as well as collaboration can begin.
So why has PowerPoint been getting slammed by organizations lately? I believe the main reason is that it is incorrectly being used as a collaboration tool. Slide decks also do not lend themselves to in-depth discussion on how the presenter arrived at their idea or proposal. Let’s walk through some presentation use cases as we think about family vacations.
PowerPoint presentations are not a good medium for decision-making meetings.
When I was growing up, my dad used to put together slide shows of his military trips abroad. I got to see awesome pictures of Greece, Spain, and Turkey for starters. My dad was very proud and excited to share his experiences with us as we sat in the living room looking at the landscape, people, and glimpses of the countries’ cultures. It was a one-way communication and inspired thoughts of wanting to visit. His presentation was charismatic and you were instantly sold on the idea that Spain is an awesome place to explore and watch flamenco dancers along cobblestone streets.
Many years, later I would experience Deja Vous in a meeting with a buttoned-up presentation deck and dynamic speaker. Bottom line: a good presenter with influence will easily sell their ideas and experiences. These individuals will most likely have an easier time getting their ideas and initiatives in front of senior management without having their logic scrutinized.
Using a narrative format calls for the presenter to do more research and flesh out their ideas. They will have to devise a “walk-through” of their methodology and key points to show they have logically planned out their proposal or initiative. A traditional PowerPoint presentation using the six bullet points maximum, six words per bullet maximum per slide (6×6) might not be able to convey these ideas.
PowerPoint presentations don’t invite participation or collaboration.
If you’re looking to plan a family or group vacation, everyone would ideally like to give their input on the destination, accommodations, and what sites to visit. Again, good talkers and influencers will probably get their vacation spot to the top by showing eye-catching brochures and a good talk track.
InVision CEO, Clark Valberg has also banned PowerPoint from company meetings. Instead of a memo, presenters are expected to sketch out their presentation/ideas in front of a group. His company uses a whiteboard technology called Freehand which allows a presenter to share the sketch with a remote audience. He states that using slide decks in presentations gives presenters all the power. “Instead of presenters always holding the ball in their hand, we want them to throw the ball into the audience and create more of a game.” This approach helps presenters crystallize their thinking thereby helping the participants understand the thought process. It also fosters discussion in a less formal setting.
PowerPoint bullets are the least effective way of sharing ideas.
As I’ve mentioned in prior articles, it’s important to create a story with facts and data. Numbers are not memorable. Messages delivered as stories can be 22X more memorable than facts. What is going to be more memorable to your family and friends when telling them about Aruba? That its latitude and longitude is 12.5211 degrees N, 69.9683 degrees W or that the weather is 80 degrees year-round with white sandy beaches? The latter will evoke a feeling and a visual. It’s been advised that slides for traditional presentations should be designed as billboards. This may not be enough for meetings that need a walk-through of methodologies or strategic discussions.
At Columbia University’s Storytelling with Data course, we guide students through different forms of communication for presenting data within the organization. This includes proposal briefs, memos, storyboards, and executive presentations. They each serve their purpose and have intended audiences. They also address the fact that PowerPoint presentations are best used for one-way communications and not collaboration or strategic discussions. Memos allow for more strategic thinking, deeper discussions and for everyone’s voice to be heard.
I’m not for “banning” PowerPoint as I think it has uses as takeaway documents or “slideuments” that summarize key findings for others to review on their own time or for stakeholders who were not able to attend the meeting. Assessing when and where PowerPoint should be used will be a culture shift for most organizations but I believe it’s worth the investment as it will save time in articulating points of view and having more thought-provoking discussions.