One More Time, Why is PowerPoint a Bad Idea?

Monday, November 27th, 2006

PowerPoint is the influence tool of choice inside organizations. Some can’t make a presentation without using those ubiquitous slides. In some places, you look downright unprepared if you fail to use PowerPoint slides. It almost appears like you didn’t take time to think about the presentation.

This fascination with PowerPoint (and other related software that creates virtual slides) is misguided. Here’s why.

It over-simplifies complex data

Edward Tufte wrote a booklet titled The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (Graphics Press LLC). In it, he rails against the use of this tool. As he says, “bullet points dilute thought.” He argues that PowerPoint slides over-simplify data, and leave the complexity out. He  cites the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s findings that “reports unfortunately provided an over-optimistic assessment of the danger facing the damaged Columbia as it orbited.”

PowerPoint is a poor tool to use to try to influence people.

Let’s say that you are trying to convince a group of colleagues that they should pay attention to quality. You prepare a presentation. And, just to show you really care, you use clip art.

The big day comes. You present. Within minutes eyes are glazed over. At the end, the questions and comments from the audience are insignificant, nit-picky, or off-the-point. Not the response you had hoped for.

What went wrong?

I believe that three things need to be in place in order to influence others.

People need to get it? (Level 1)

They need to like it? (Level 2)

And they need to like you? (Level 3)

So they need to understand what you’re talking about, they need to have an emotional reaction in favor of what you are saying, and they need to trust that you are giving them good information. If any of these are missing, you get apathy, inertia, or opposition. Not a good way to begin a project.

PowerPoint only addresses Level 1. Its one advantage is that it allows you to present lists of key items. And that can be helpful, up to a point, to keep you and the audience focused on a particular topic.

PowerPoint can’t grab people and make them say, “Wow, we’ve got to do that. If we don’t fix our quality programs we could be out of business! Let’s get started right now.” And PowerPoint often does nothing to build their confidence in you. The slides put a wall between you and your audience. .

Chris was a regional vice-president in his company. He made a presentation to his peers at a retreat. He seemed committed and thorough in his preparation. Within minutes, some people went to the back of the room where the coffee and pastries were set up. People got coffee and then stayed in back, sometimes listening, sometimes talking with others. Some turned to their PDAs and did e-mail. And the end of his presentation, he asked, “Any questions?” There were none. He thanked them for their time and walked off the stage.

Because he was so focused on the details of each slide, he missed the signals in front of him that he was failing to connect with his audience. Had he noticed that people were congregating in back, that others were working on their PDAs, and still others seemed to be reading the morning paper, he could have done something different. For instance, he could have made a joke. “Seems like I’m the only one interested in this topic so early on a Saturday morning” And then waited to see what reaction he got. Or he could have stopped after a few minutes and said, “Before I go on, is this topic of any interest to you?” And then waited for a reply.

He allowed PowerPoint to create a wall between him and the people he wanted to influence.

But what about this Level 2 (emotional reaction) and Level 3 (trust in the speaker)? Take a look at something Peter Norvig did. He said, “After one too many bad presentations at a meeting in January 2000, I decided to see if I could do something about it.”

The result is a funny and sobering parody of a typical presentation.

He wondered, “What if Lincoln had access to PowerPoint at Gettysburg?” You can see what he came up with at His presentation includes all the main points but strips the speech of its rhetorical brilliance. Had Lincoln actually used PowerPoint, we truly would, little note nor long remember, those words.

So the next time you want to influence a group, try to eliminate the slides altogether. If you can’t go cold turkey, then limit yourself to five slides (warning: not slides packed with eighteen bullet points, but five compelling slides with each making just one or two points). And then look at your audience as you speak. Engage them. If they look quizzical, see if they’ve got questions. If they look bored, try to find out why this topic interests you so much and doesn’t hit home to them. Good luck.

(This article will appear in my column for The Journal for Quality and Participation, a publication of the Amercian Society for Quality. Thanks to ASQ for permission to print it here.)