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About Leadership: The Use and Abuse of PowerPoint

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In some ways, the invention of PowerPoint, and of projectors to show computer generated slides, was a great thing. In my professional lifetime I have moved from presentations using glass lantern slides, with all the lettering drawn by hand using special ink and lettering devices, to 35 mm slides prepared a week or two in advance of a presentation, to overhead transparencies that could be made more or less up to the last minute, (but where the quality of anything but typed material was pretty marginal) to the computer generated slide.

Now we can show charts and graphs, photographs, interactive spreadsheets, animation -- in short we can take a presentation relying on words and bring it to life. Great. So how do most presenters use this new facility? By making slide after slide of words and bulleted lists, the most boring slides imaginable.

Why do we do this? To some extent, slides have always been a crutch for the weak communicator ("Even if they can't hear or understand me, they can at least read the message"), as if people would like to assemble someplace to read as a group, and for the speaker who does not really know his subject well enough to talk it through convincingly. PowerPoint seems to have added to these two weak justifications for slides the ability to prepare a talk at the last minute. Which, believe it or not, always comes out sounding like a talk prepared at the last minute.

Academics love to use slides, and their professional life is recorded on their slide collections. Somehow this tendency has pervaded industry. When I first came to work at Standard Oil of Ohio, I was asked to speak as part of a presentation to senior management of the company about the impact that arranging computer technology would have on the business. I duly prepared 45 (really, 45) slides to show, and thought they made a nice logical flow. Ten minutes after completing a rehearsal in front of our vice president, he appeared in my office and said "That was so bad I didn't know where to start," and as we spoke he showed me how I could do a more powerful presentation with three slides. I never looked back from that.

There is an exception to this approach, and that is when many in the audience are non-native speakers of the language of the presentation. So if I am speaking in English in China, or Russia, or Argentina, I always want a full slide pack with words making the major points, because non-native speakers will have the reinforcement of reading with listening, and will not fall behind through trying to understand what point I was trying to make.

If you have any doubts about this, I have two suggestions. First, try to do a slideless presentation. Think about the four points you are going to make in a talk and how you are going to make them powerfully without slides. Then think about where you need to show something increasing or decreasing, and how that requires a graph. Think about shares that might require a pie chart. Or about how a photograph will convey beauty, ugliness, or scale. Second, read the little pamphlet by Edward Tufte called 'The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint' (available from www.edwardtufte.com), which also addresses some of the bad graphical approaches available in PowerPoint.

So here is where I suggest you start when you have to make a presentation, especially to a senior group: No slides, just talk. Then add back any slides with visual information that you are struggling to convey with words. If you do this, you will often find yourself giving talks with no slides, and many times, if there are several presentations being made in the meeting, you will be the exception, which is even better. Imagine the relief of, and the impact on, a senior executive group that has sat through several batteries of slides, when you come in, sit down, and just talk to them directly.

About Leadership is a series of 52 columns on corporate leadership -- essential skills, leading teams, managing your career, the strategic and business practices to make a company and its leader distinctive from competitors. These columns will be of interest to people leading small and medium sized companies today, many of whom have not had much formal training in management skills and techniques, for the many people in big companies who aspire to senior management, and for anyone who thinks: Give me a hint, how can I do this better?