We’ve all been there. The eager presenter standing at the front of the room as we enter, the eerie luminescent glow of the projector, and the disquieting sense that you are about to spend one hour (or more) on a topic that should require 15 minutes (or less) of your time.
Salt is applied to your psychic wound during the unnecessarily long introduction that everyone knows. Panic sets in if the slide deck is not in full presentation mode and you see that the presenter has 59 more slides to go. The group of people who had been your animated co-workers just minutes ago are suddenly struck dumb, staring slack-jawed at the screen and thinking about something else.
Welcome to a scene that is playing out – right now – in countless conference rooms around the world.
In a sense, PowerPoint (and Keynote, etc) is unfairly maligned, sort of like making fun of a hammer because it does a bad job of cutting your lawn. The problem is less the tool, and more how the tool is being used. (And although PowerPoint itself might be unfairly maligned, it doesn’t mean doing so can’t be a lot of fun.)
The related problem is poor meeting discipline, and lack of focus. If more meetings spent the first 3 minutes stating the objective of the meeting, we’d immediately have more productive meetings.
In an interesting post, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner outlined how they have “essentially eliminated the presentation” for their meetings. Participants are supposed to receive the materials that normally would have been presented 24 hours in advance so they can familiarize themselves with the content. The first 5-10 minutes of the meeting are a time for people to re-read (or read for the first time) the materials silently and formulate their questions/points of emphasis. Jeff Bezos does the same thing with his executive team meetings at Amazon.
But most of us are still going to be faced with PowerPoint, and like a hammer, it is a tool that can be wielded with great impact or great destruction. Here are a few of my personal observations about how to make better use of PowerPoint:
- It is great for summarizing strategy, but not setting strategy. Many of us are lazy and use PowerPoint to formulate and convey strategy. I try to avoid this because PowerPoint slides leave too much to the imagination, and it is too easy to gain consensus if the participants are left to fill the gaps with their own (unspoken) opinions. I try to write my strategy in complete sentences, with supporting detail from spreadsheets. Only then, once the story hangs together and has undergone a few revisions, do I try to summarize the key points in PowerPoint.
- Less is more. It is rare that a deck needs to be longer than 20 slides. 10 is better. Telling the audience “I’m going to take you through 10 slides, and at the end of it you should understand the following” will go a long way to getting your audience to pay attention.
- The presentation is an aid, but you are the presenter. Ever looked at the back of a presenter’s head while he reads fifty-word bullet points to you? What we all need to remember, as presenters, is that our words and passion make our presentations succeed or fail. PowerPoint cannot be the presentation itself. It should make the presentation better by drawing attendees’ eyes to key points you wish to emphasize.
I once worked for a huge technology company where virtually all of us were remote employees, so the amount of time I spent looking through PowerPoints while on conference calls was astounding, and frankly stole my happiness much like the dementors that afflicted Harry Potter. One day I was seized with an idea: put a simple software counter on my laptop that automatically advances with every slide. Every two weeks, have payroll download the number from my counter, and pay me according to the number of PowerPoint charts I viewed during that pay period.
Although I was proud of the idea, I was unable to sell it internally…..