PowerPoint has Its Problems. It’s Worthy Anyway.

Some corporate titans, acclaimed scholars and top military leaders agree on one issue:

“People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint.” —Steve Jobs, Apple Co-Founder and acclaimed presenter.

“Slideware may help speakers outline their talks, but convenience for the speaker can be punishing to both content and audience.” –Edward Tufte, Yale University

“PowerPoint makes us stupid.” —James Mattis, former Secretary of Defense & retired Marine Corps General

Steve Jobs, Professor Tufte and Secretary Mattis are not alone in their disdain for computer-generated slide shows like Microsoft PowerPoint. A Swiss political party has even undertaken to ban slide shows altogether.

I observed my personal favorite ad hoc critique of slide shows when the head of one federal agency began a speech by saying “I don’t have a slide show.” The audience cheered.

Antipathy toward slide shows is understandable but misdirected. Most are poor. Too many users of slide shows don’t understand what they are doing or don’t put in enough effort, or both. A high percentage of slide shows are painful for audiences. However, the story is not that simple.

A slide show is a tool, an instrument like a hammer, airbrush or violin. A poorly constructed house is the result of bad carpentry. A poor airbrush user makes the classiest model look like a tramp. A poor violinist will make a Stradivarius sound like a hungry cat.

Good carpenters build sturdy houses. Good airbrushing can make ordinary models look glamorous. The gifted Jacqueline Du Prey made Dvorak’s Cello concerto sublime. Good slide shows can help presenters better educate, persuade, and even inspire.

For most presenters today, the question is not so much whether to use slide presentation software. The more important question is how to use it effectively. Understanding the pitfalls to avoid is a good starting place. This essay and some follow-ups will contain some tips, but first, let’s clarify one issue. While MS PowerPoint is the dominant program used today to generate slide presentations, it is far from being the only such program. Zapier provides a pretty good list of some alternatives. There are already AI-assisted options.

Matt Homann‘s entertaining and educational PowerPoint Bingo™ is a great resource on what to avoid. Before checking it out, let’s review some of the reasons why presenters should consider slide shows a valuable resource.

Reasons To Try Slide Shows Despite the Pitfalls

On a basic level, slide presentations can have the effect of “raising the floor.” They make it more likely that a poor speaker will get a tolerable result. This is what attracted me to slide shows way back in the 90s.

I believed I was a poor speaker. I was terrified at the thought of bombing completely. I decided that despite my lack of skill, using a slide show would ensure that I would be able to convey at least a few points. If nothing else, it would make it easier for me to remember my speaker notes. Even my first clumsy slide shows helped me. Even better, there was a bonus. Because I was more confident, I was more effective.

Extensive use of slide shows over the past 30 years has taught me another lesson: A good slide presentation can often make an average to poor speaker noticeably more effective. I’ve also come to believe that good slide presentation can make good presenters even more effective.

The changing nature of audiences provides another compelling reason to use slide shows. Audience expectations are rising. Decades of watching television and using the Internet have resulted in impatience with older methods of instruction. Audiences expect instruction to be visual, and to be faster in pace than is convenient with older media. A good slide presentation makes it easier to give audiences what they expect.

Potential Benefits of Slide Shows

Graphics Work. Cliches become cliches for a reason. They express fundamental truths. It’s hackneyed to say a picture is worth a thousand words, but behind the trite expression is a profound insight. Graphics have unusual potential to educate, persuade and even inspire.

This is not exactly news. Visual aids can help explain complex concepts and data more effectively than text alone.Savvy presenters have always used graphics when possible. For decades, overhead slides were a popular choice. Slide presentation software makes it easier to use graphics effectively. They allow the integration of images, charts, and graphics, making information more engaging and easier to understand.

Technical advances now enable sophisticated presenters to go beyond overhead slides. Animations and transitions can capture attention and maintain audience interest.

Organization and Clarity Matter. Slides can help organize information into clear, digestible chunks, facilitating better understanding and retention. Even the oft-maligned bullet point has its place.

Consistency and Professionalism Matter. Pre-designed templates ensure consistency in design and make presentations look professional without extensive design knowledge. Custom templates can include organizational logos, colors, and fonts, reinforcing brand identity.

Slides Facilitate Recycling and Upgrading. Slides can be easily edited and customized to fit specific audience needs or updated with new information. I rarely give the same slide show twice. I nearly always at least tweak a show before each new presentation. Multiple rounds of upgrades can transform OK shows into stunning presentations.

Slides Increase Flexibility. Presentations can be adapted for different formats, such as printed handouts, PDFs, or online slideshows.

The bottom line is that slide presentations can work, at least if the presenter understands the basics and is prepared to invest some time to create a quality product. Catherine Reach’s summary of the basics is a good how-to-starter. You’ll have to provide your own motivation.

Matt Homann’s PowerPoint Bingo ™ Shows What To Avoid

The best visual aids require little explanation. The PowerPoint Bingo graphic below summarizes some key elements of a presentation fiasco. It pretty much speaks for itself, but we’ll expand on some of his best points and others in follow-up essays. In the meantime, just enjoy:

Republished with permission of Matt Homann. PowerPoint Bingo is a trademark of Filament.

Posted in: Communication Skills, KM, Presentation Skills