Powerpoints: Keep them simple and don’t have the screen too bright

This is a short (and very non-political) piece by me about the continuing criticism of MS PowerPoint as a business presentation tool. It appeared in the BEERG Global Newsletter of Sept 9th 2021

An old PowerPoint – dull, but in a good way….

Derek Mooney writes: Over the years BEERG has seen very many PowerPoint presentations, not to mention the hundreds it has given, so it was most interested to read this article criticising PowerPoint as a business tool.

The article, which appeared on INC.com at the beginning of August, was itself based on a Harvard study from back in 2017, though it also cites research from as far back as 2007. This rang a bell, as a communications consultant in both the political and business fields I have been reading criticisms of PowerPoint as a presentation tool for over a decade and a half, yet BEERG has been using it at various face-to-face and online meetings and at training programs without any negative feedback.

It occurs to me that the issue is not with PowerPoint itself, but with how some of us use it. Looking back at thousands of presentations that have appeared at various BEERG meetings, it is true that there have been a few horrendous ones, including one deck that contained over 150 slides for a 20-minute slot, plus assorted other decks that either contained slides with text the size of the font you are now reading or were so full of complex and busy charts as to be indecipherable.

But there have been very many more excellent decks. Presentations that were concise, focused and didn’t outshine the presenter… literally and figuratively. (See the advice offered via a link below by David Philips on favouring a darker background and using more contrast with text). Their slide decks offered the precise level of visual support to accompany excellent oral presentations.  

Most presentations used at BEERG event worked well and did not distract from the message the speaker was conveying, especially when they were used afterwards as notes and reminders of key points of the presentation. Indeed I am struck by how often attendees contact us after a meeting looking for the presentations in PDF format, as the slides contained such useful information. This highlights two of the most useful aspects of using PowerPoint. The first is that it gives you a précis you can share with your audience, while the second is that preparing it makes you put structure on your presentation and can be a form of rehearsal.

As I mentioned earlier, almost since PowerPoint and other ZUIs (zoomable user interfaces) first appeared there have been critiques of their use, including from a British friend of mine, Dr Max Atkinson. Max is not only a renowned communications academic, he was a skilled practitioner too, having served as a speech writer for the UK Liberal Democrat party leader, the late Paddy Ashdown, in the 1980s and 1990s.

Max understands the power of storytelling in creating a speech or a presentation that influenced and connected with people. He was concerned that the over reliance on elaborate visual presentation tools could take away from that, slido-mania as he termed it. Or, to paraphrase a Marshall McLuhan-ism, the medium should not become the message. A point made humorously, and to great effect, in Peter Norvig’s suggestion as to what Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address might look like if delivered on PowerPoint. 

Max wrote a great deal on the use of PowerPoint and his analysis is still worth reading. His book on speech making: Lend Me Your Ears is well worth a read if you can find it, but fortunately many of his original Blogposts are still available online, including many on PowerPoint, including one with the straightforward message: if Bill Gates doesn’t read bullet points from PowerPoint slides, then neither should you.

Max still tweets regularly on the topic.

Two other sources you may care to view are:

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