What's Wrong with PowerPoint (As If You Didn't Know Already)

Like it or not, PowerPoint is the lowest common denominator for business communications. Sure, you can argue that email and instant messaging tools like Slack are used every minute of every day, but critical ideas that require planning and action always make their way into a presentation, usually a PowerPoint deck – or some alternative, like Google Slides. If a business idea has any gravity, it is in a presentation somewhere within the company network.

Yet PowerPoint, which was created over 30 years ago, hasn’t changed all that much. It may have become fancier, with smarter graphics and cooler animations, and it’s fairly easy to use, which is why everyone uses it. But for companies, the fact that everyone is using it is a problem.

Inside most companies, PowerPoint is a tangled nightmare – like old wiring behind the walls just waiting to short-circuit. Too many people use too many decks with too many messages that are out of date, don’t match, or even conflict with each other. Need a critical slide at the last second? Good luck finding it. Over 30 million PowerPoint presentations are created every day, constantly adding to the knotty buildup of slides and decks sitting on individual hard drives.

Clearly, there needs to be a better way – a way that takes advantage of innovative technologies like cloud and machine learning – for a company to manage such an important asset.

Presentations are for people who need to understand, act and react. That’s how things get done in business. Every business discipline, whether sales, training, research, investor relations, product development or human resources, relies on PowerPoint to reinforce important messages. The CEO’s five-year projection, the salesperson’s pitch to a prospect, the brand director’s marketing plan, the trainer’s lecture to a group of new hires working to get certified – they all use PowerPoint to get their message across.

This holds true across industries. Financial institutions rely on decks packed with detailed data to raise money, announce quarterly earnings, present research analysis and market trends, and to communicate portfolio gains and losses to their clientele. Travel and hospitality reps use presentations with glorious photos and videos of their luxurious properties in exotic locations to convince travel agents and potential customers that they should spend their limited free time there. What better way to sell a vacation than to show a sandy beach with crystal blue water? Media companies rely on presentations with authentic pictures of their target consumer, combined with charts describing how their network delivers that very same person. Consultants like McKinsey & Co. and Gartner Inc., generate hundreds of millions of dollars selling their decks of research, analysis and forecasts to their corporate clients. The military is known for its reliance on PowerPoint decks. The most notorious is Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s slide that he used at a military briefing in 2009 to describe the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan. “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” he said at the time.

Source: The New York Times

McChrystal’s slide, though, shows why we rely on PowerPoint so much: It is visual.

Hear a piece of information and, three days later, you will remember 10 percent of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65 percent. A good 90 percent of the information processed by the brain is visual, according to the book Brain Rules by Dr. John Medina. Visual slides are absolutely critical to getting a message across, especially when the stakes are high.

Visual storytelling is powerful and ancient. Throughout the course of history, literacy rates have been abysmally low. It was not until somewhat recently, in 2015, that world literacy rates rose to 86.2 percent. In the Stone Age, Neanderthals used cave drawings to communicate with each other. One theory is that the artists described themselves and the animals around them, communicating information that helped them survive. The cave drawings were visual stories relaying critical information.

Visual communications media evolved from cave drawings to paint brushed on wood or stone, to charcoal or ink on paper, then to framed paintings and stained-glass windows. Medieval paintings tell stories of God’s glory and wrath, kings decorated with riches and peasants tilling the fields. In a world where most people could not read, the visuals told the stories and taught proper behavior so that everyone could live in a civil society. Visual stories were how human beings evolved and thrived as a dominant species.

Visuals are also a faster way to communicate than words alone. Humans are visual first, verbal second. We process visuals 60,000 times faster than text. Let’s try an experiment.

Read this: "Laughing baby."

Now look at this picture:

A laughing baby!

Which elicited a greater reaction: the words “laughing baby” or the picture of a laughing baby? Most likely, you had a stronger reaction to the latter -- maybe a bigger smile and a little gasp of, “Aww, how cute!” Pictures evoke emotion where words cannot.

Marketers know this. The advertising industry was built on this. In business, the visuals and graphics that helped sell a product or service were long the purview of skilled tradesmen. Illustrators, typesetters, photographers, retouchers and movie directors were esteemed artisans. They were paid handsomely by corporate marketing-advertising experts to help visualize -- i.e., tell -- the corporate story because businesses saw the importance of conveying the “right” visual story.

Today, media is digital and on-demand. We shoot video instantly on our phones, edit it ourselves, and upload it to YouTube. Pictures can also be taken and retouched right on our phones. Talk about controlling your visual story. We are all the spin-masters of our visual lives.

The ubiquity of digital tools is progress. It’s faster and cheaper than ever to take and distribute a beautiful picture. And it’s faster and cheaper than ever to create your own deck, rather than spend the time and money hiring someone else to do it. While that’s a huge advance, the reliance on PowerPoint has some drawbacks to communications for any kind of organization.

PowerPoint is rigid. It forces the speaker and the audience into a linear train of thought. But as humans, our minds and conversations like to wander. It’s how we create and ideate. PowerPoint’s linear format forces us into an unnatural thought process. It deters creativity.

Bullet points and the outline format inhibit the narrative. An outline has long been a way to organize thoughts and build a compelling story and conversation around them. It was a starting point to a more in-depth proposal and plan. With PowerPoint, the outline has evolved into the final plan. The nuance and critical thinking that was once the meat of the proposal has now been omitted from “the deck.” After all, writing is thinking.

It’s a crutch that makes us lazy. If you can get away with a few bullet points, why bother with all that extra thinking work? It’s a lot faster to write up some bullets without having to worry about those pesky transitions that tie ideas together. Throw in some nice effects, a few pictures, charts and… voila! You’re good to go. Yes, you are good to go and bore the hell out your colleagues or clients – the very people on whom your success depends.

There are enough graphics to be dangerous. PowerPoint’s greatest attribute is also its worst crime against the critical, thoughtful exchange of ideas. It has a wealth of animated effects, transitions, template designs, charting and graphic tools that will turn a neophyte into a bad graphic designer. Graphs and images, when used to support your main idea, are invaluable. The pitfall lies when users get carried away and use too many images or images that don’t necessarily reinforce their idea. So the slides become a distraction from the main point.

It’s one and done. A great presentation may take hours or even weeks to create. It might include copywriting, branded graphics, pictures and video that reinforce the message, as well as input from the company’s top executives – making it a very powerful piece of communications. This is the kind of content that, when unleashed across the company, can up everyone’s game. But after the meeting, this deck gets lost in a folder or some long email chain, to die a lonely death in obscurity. If someone in the company wants to reuse any of that content, then she will spend hours hunting and pecking around the network, opening, scrolling, then closing the wrong files. And if she is lucky enough to stumble upon the right deck, then she will scroll, copy and paste into a new deck. Repeat that seemingly innocuous process several times, and before you know it, there are 20-plus PowerPoint files open on your desktop and you’re afraid to close them lest you lose something important. Which file was that? Not sure, so you just save as version 27, which just so happens to be the same as version 25. But no one has the time or energy to read through all those decks that are basically the same. A gross waste of time, money and space -- both mental space and network space.

These presentations become lost assets. Who loses assets? Businesses that fail, that’s who! Who uses their assets wisely? Businesses that succeed. Presentations are often overlooked assets, a wellspring of knowledge just waiting to be tapped. Exploiting your presentation assets in a methodical way will improve everyone’s performance.