Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Powerpoint Heretic?

I keep expecting the use of PowerPoint, the system for making presentations to die in business.  My predictions of 2010 are not being lived up to: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2010/09/managing-time-at-work-challenge-of.html  and as I highlight here many of the problems persist.  PowerPoint is now coming up to 22 years old.  Whilst different facilities are available, the basic approach of landscape-orientated slides which can hold about four items of information has remained.  The criticisms of PowerPoint notably by Edward Tufte from 2003 onwards do not seem to have dented its usage.  It is not a good format for presenting the kind of complex information that is often necessary to be discussed in business.  In some ways it stops the content becoming over-specialised for a general audience, but the constraints imposed by making the words fit to the slide size (often hemmed in further by company logos and frames) and yet still be legible often in large rooms means that the content is over-simplified.

Further problems come from how easy it is to make numerous PowerPoint slides so that you end up with a situation in which the audience is 'hypnotised' by the passage of similarly looking content without engaging with the content.  It is unsurprising that watching a procession of very similarly looking objects, pretty much like a herd of sheep going through a gateway leads the audience to fall asleep.  My principle is that you should have half as many slides as you have minutes for a presentation, so if you are presenting for 30 minutes you should have no more than 15 slides; saying that 30 slides in 60 minutes seems excessive and perhaps there is a sliding scale with the ratio falling to a third by the time you reach the hour mark.  However, this view is unpopular.  A colleague severely criticised me when I put forward this principle saying that he found a presentation of 10 minutes which used 98 slides to be acceptable, a rate of one slide every 6.1 seconds.  He said many contained a sequence of single images and I said, well, then do not try to make a 'flick book' on screen these days it is simpler and less distracting to have a looping animation of what you are showing.  It is ironic that PowerPoint facilities such as animation are, in most cases, just used as decoration (and a distraction) rather than actually communicating a point in a more appropriate way.

People read about 70 words per minute at a relaxed pace for content more sophisticated than 'simple', it rises to 100 words for simple content, though I know some business schools who expect 250 words per minute from their students.  Now, this means that for an average slide, at 70 words per minute you would expect it to take about 45 seconds to read it given the amount of content there.  However, these reading rates are derived from books where the idea is often continued on for a number of sentences.  PowerPoint is renowned to providing a whole series of different ideas or factors quickly in succession.  Thus, while your eye can look over the content in 45 seconds the brain may take longer, especially as there is recent evidence that such mental faculties begin deteriorating from the age of 45 so encompassing much a business audience.

Demands for the audience further diffuse their ability to concentrate on content.  Many audiences become indignant if you do not provide handouts of the content you are parading on the slides.  However, if you do that you add a third form of input into their minds on top of your voice and whatever is on the screen.  PowerPoint has increasingly enabled the use of audio and video resources so how do you put them on to a handout, print them out as a 'flick book'?  In addition, anyone who asks for handouts is effectively saying that they are not actually going to engage with what you are saying, they will flick through it later.  I accept that people with particular disabilities benefit from handouts but then they are using them instead of what is on the screen not in addition to that content.  There have long been slide presentations, dating back to magic lantern shows of the 19th century and many of them were very tedious.  What the difference has been with PowerPoint is the ability to add words on to them so duplicating visual and aural communication of the same message, especially as so many presenters simply read from the slide.  I always feel that this suggests the audience is illiterate and the presenter is filling the role of the mice who read the headings in the movie 'Babe' (1995) the director knowing that the reading age of much of the audience was pretty low (it is a children's movie).

Due to these difficulties, PowerPoint presentations often become a ritual rather than any form of communication.  It is like watching holy communion and brings similar benefits to you.  As yet I have not heard of any priests using PowerPoint for their sermons though I may be mistaken.  Religious officers have a history of knowing how to present, it is something that they have been doing for centuries.  Of course, some people feel that they can brighten up their content with unrelated images or even random sounds. 

I am fascinated with the industry of creating 'business images' often surreal portrayals of 'business people' faking a meeting or bellowing at each other through megaphones or wandering around a desert pulling something like a ball and chain.  I wonder what the working conditions are like for these people who have to model strange activities in these deserts.  If the image whether a random shape or one of these photographs is of use, why not simply have it to represent the idea you are trying to communicate?  Why have the words and the picture too?  Of course, in international business images can be culturally confusing though I also note having worked with Americans and South Africans that words even in the same language can obfuscate more than they can clarify.

Back in the 2000s I found such any different approaches to the slog through numerous slides was challenged and I was told that it showed I lacked ability in using PowerPoint, apparently a necessary minimum requirement.  There was no discussion of the intellectual engagement, purely a focus on the cosmetic aspect.  It was more acceptable to have an excessive quantity of slides for the time allotted than to try a different approach which stepped away from the ingrained expectations of PowerPoint.  I certainly believe that 'less is more' in terms of PowerPoint. Often you can put questions up which you then answer orally for the audience.  You can use it to present diagrams of illustrations that provoke discussion.  Ironically, Bill Bailey in his 'Dandelion Mind' tour does this surprisingly well when discussing 'Doubting' Thomas in art.  Part of the problem of these approaches are that they are dependent on using PowerPoint in the way it was designed to be used, i.e. as an aid to an oral presentation.  Now, however, you have to prepare slides for different purposes.  I am now habitually asked to put my slides on to websites or email them to people.  Thus, I need to have enough words on them that someone who does not have me standing beside them talking about the content can still understand them. 

Increasingly I make two versions for these different audiences so reducing the benefit of the time saving offered by PowerPoint.  However, someone looking for the content to read online or be emailed to them would far better receiving a piece of prose, a report going into the details in some detail or simply summarising them.  There is no point in having slides if you are simply going to print them out or read them on your own computer screen, you might as well simply have a body of text including appropriate illustrations.  You would not expect to put pages of a Word document up at a presentation so why do you expect to give presentation slides to someone as if they were a report?  PowerPoint has become so fetishised that it is difficult for many people in business to think about communicating without using it even when it is not an appropriate medium for what you are saying.

Perhaps my views are beginning to take root in some isolated places.  Whilst I am being pressured to write more and more wordy texts so that I can go through the ritual of twisting round so I can read my own words from an inappropriate way of presenting them, i.e. vast and close to my face, a young colleague has listened to my views.  I have now attended two presentations in which he has eschewed PowerPoint except to introduce the fact that he is not going to use it.  At the last presentation he pointed out to the audience that, whilst they were apparently not aware of it they actually knew all the points he was about to raise about customer demands already.  He gave them three questions and in the space of fifteen minutes the audience of fourteen came up with all the findings that he would have presented.  Perhaps they felt cheated of their ritual of slide watching, but I have a feeling that they gained the message more effectively.  We need to keep reminding ourselves that it is the effectiveness of what we are doing in terms of communicating what we have to say that must be the starting point.  Otherwise it is like picking up a hammer or a saw and struggling to think what we could build with them rather than planning to build something and then taking the appropriate tool out of the box.  Trying to defy the dogmatic, orthodox PowerPoint approach, however, may expose you to being treated like a heretic of old.

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