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June 2016

Back To My Obsessive Distaste for PowerPoint

So…here I go again. Let me start with a recent episode. I belong to an association of experienced professionals that provides invaluable member services. I won’t name it because I treasure my time with these folks and what I’m about to say shouldn’t be taken as reflecting on their high standards and a generous attitude to sharing what works.

At a meeting devoted to passing on lessons learned, PowerPoint slides -- some jammed with charts and logos and bullet points -- flew by at a furious pace. As the show gained steam, one of the presenters said she knew of my attitude toward PowerPoint, but added something to the effect that it was the only way to convey a lot of information in a short time.

With all due respect, no it isn’t. Over many years of running seminars on business writing, presentation skills, and media relations, I am absolutely certain that adults learn best when I try to stimulate a conversation instead of delivering a prepackaged lecture -- a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage. I encourage participants to interrupt, ask questions, share triumphs and failures, laugh with and at each other, and -- when the timing is ripe -- hear what I have to say. PowerPoint has no place in such a fertile setting.

And what, you, may ask, happens to that precious “information” that any presenter wants to pass on, especially in a limited time? How about this, from my experience:

"Look, let’s talk over your problems with writing. Then we’ll do as many realistic exercises as time allows. I’m willing to bet that along the way you’ll learn -- and practice -- all the major points I want to convey. And just to make sure, I’ll hand out 'takeaway' sheets later."

Takeaway sheets. Doesn’t that sound more reassuring than feeling compelled to take notes and hanging on to your questions until the presenter finally gets to the last slide? And in a setting such as my association’s gathering -- more of an update on best practices than a traditional seminar -- properly written takeaways aren’t just convenient. They’re essential.

A couple more points:

  • At another breakfast meeting of that same group last winter, a dynamic consultant kept us both mesmerized and engaged by telling one story after another about the front lines of small business capitalism. Unencumbered by PowerPoint and the compulsion to click through every last slide, she welcomed questions and reactions and maintained eye contact around the room, all part of a stimulating conversation.
  • A couple months ago, I hosted a seminar on presentation skills at a major federal agency in DC. Divided into groups of three or four apiece, the participants chose a familiar topic to be presented to a senior official, rehearsed it, and then ran it by the rest of us. Critiques from colleagues were knowledgeable and fair and useful, and all I had to do was comment on nonverbal signals, natural movement, organization, and a few other details on public speaking. We also agreed on the contents of takeaways.

In that session, I noted that they didn’t have to dismiss PowerPoint altogether, perhaps using it to open with a cartoon or telling quote, then following up with a flew slides that identify major points, but no cluttered bullet lists and no charts that have absolutely no value unless you remembered to bring binoculars to the session to read the fine print. Now, I wouldn’t engage in even that minimalist approach, but I’m trying to be reasonable here, understanding that the PowerPoint compulsion is well-nigh irresistible these days.

Here’s what works best: You being you, with a personality that conveys sincerity, humor, sophistication, knowledge, and a sincere effort to connect.