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Could we be nearing the end of ‘death by PowerPoint?’ (Could PowerPoint itself be dying?)

Here’s a lame story by way of intro: last fall, when I was in my first semester of graduate school, I really wanted a gig at Microsoft. (News flash: I did not get one.) I heard that a recruiter from Microsoft was coming to speak to my early-morning Monday class, and I also knew the professor of said class wasn’t the best communicator, so I figured there might have been a breakdown/gap in terms of this Seattle guy knowing where to go. I decided to get to school about 50 minutes early, and sure enough, there’s a dude in a shirt/tie/jeans — Seattle business chic, naitch — walking around looking in different classrooms. I cut him off and asked if he was from Microsoft, explained I was in the class, showed him where it was, and talked to him for 20-25 minutes. (This did probably get me a fly-out interview, which I then presumably bombed. No, I’m kidding. I was great. Margins are tight on jobs out there.) One of the big things we talked about was the sheer omnipresence of MS Office — I was kissing ass a little bit, for sure — and he lobbed out a stat about how many people are using PowerPoint / looking at PowerPoint at a given time. At this exact moment in my life, I had been working for about eight years, but I had worked at places where you don’t sit in a ton of meetings, so I knew of PowerPoint (of course), but hadn’t lived it and breathed it all the time for years. That said, now back in grad school mode, every professor used it, and every kid dutifully came to class with slides printed out — and if those slides weren’t available before the class, there was going to be a conversation — so I understood the resonance of the brand, and I understood why. It is the simplest way to communicate ideas to 100+ people, which often happens in academic settings.

The idea is starting to fade, though.

Don’t get me wrong — people will still use PowerPoint regularly. I’ve worked part-time jobs in the past year where it’s automatically assumed that if you need to speak to more than 10 people at once, there will be a PowerPoint. If you look at that NPR article linked above, don’t read too much into Amazon and LinkedIn banning PowerPoints — those are, after all, rivals of Microsoft in different capacities — but consider that the U.S. military basically hates them, and now top scientists (i.e. academics) are banning them too.

Here’s the best/most honest quote about PowerPoint in the NPR article:

“The use of the PowerPoint slides was acting as a straitjacket to discussion,” says Andrew Askew, an assistant professor of physics at Florida State University and one of the organizers of the forum at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois.

Yep. See, people evolve with technology and presentations. At this point, you know the drill around PowerPoint: someone else will be speaking, and you’ll be following along, but there will probably be points where you can dip into other work. There is almost nothing about PowerPoint that encourages a two-way dialogue; it encourages an active-passive relationship which is often most effective (large audiences, students, etc.) but it doesn’t encourage actual discourse and thinking. You could argue this is a problem with higher education right now; people way smarter than me have argued that.

Here’s the other problem: people often vastly over-perceive the attention span of others. I’ve heard things about PowerPoint along the lines of “one slide is one minute,” so people make 20-slide decks and assume “Oh, that’s a 20-minute presentation.” It is and it isn’t — part of it depends on how you speak, how you structure your presentation, and if you know there are certain slides you can blow through — but the thing is, seeing a 20-slide deck (if you’re an audience member) automatically creates some “I’m checked out for part of this” mentality in them, and your game (as the presenter) has been shifted.

Here’s a story about that: I worked a job recently where, at the end of the gig (it was contract), we had to make PowerPoint presentations to senior leaders. This is fairly common. Mine was probably nine slides. I wanted to visually show a few things I had done but I wanted to make it pretty brisk and give them an overall lay of the land. I knew most of these men/women would never remember me after it was over anyway, so I wanted to provide quick context and move on. A girl I worked with in that job sent me her “deck” to edit; it was north of 70 slides. These were supposed to be about 15-minute presentations. There is almost no way to present 70 slides in 15 minutes, unless you’re counting about 50 slides on the back end as “an appendix” that you encourage your people to look at on their own time. People making presentations can get very into “what needs to be said” and “how it needs to look,” and all that is important, for sure … but in reality, almost every business/academic argument around “what are we doing?” or “why are we doing this?” can be made in 3-4 sentences. If it can’t, it probably should be made in 3-4 sentences and then expanded upon in another context.

I heard a story — not sure if it’s 100 percent accurate — that back in the day at GE with Jack Welch and all that, he would make presenters come with five bullet points about the idea/project/proposal in question, and that was it. This makes sense to me. Too much of presentations/discussions is superfluous and overkill, ultimately. If you’re presenting an idea, tell us why the idea is important and tell us a little about how the idea will be executed and then a smidge on what the benefits are. Done. All the other stuff can wait for roll-out documents and logistical memos and future meetings (or so that might seem logical).

Check out that first line of that video: “Your PowerPoint is not your presentation. You are.” Preach. That’s legitimate.

Like I said, PowerPoint isn’t going away — some people may replace it with Google Slides or some other platform, but the basic idea will be there for multiple decades — but seeing a decline in it is somewhat hopeful, especially if it can be paired with a re-evaluation of how meetings should look.

 

Ted Bauer

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