Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Its not just the quality of ideas...

... it's your ability to show and explain them to your audience which counts.

The New York Times today has a pretty good article on the dangers of PowerPoint. This is focussed on the US military's experience of using the tool, and one result of this process, one of the most fiendishly complex slides of all human comprehension. As the article says:

“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General McChrystal dryly remarked, one of his advisers recalled, as the room erupted in laughter.
The simple fact is that the slide cited here is simply not comprehensible to any human being. It may contain all the information you would ever need on its intended topic, but it simply doesnt function as a tool to deliver information.

Capt. Crispin Burke, aka Starbuck had this to say in his article on the same topic in the Small Wars Journal:

PowerPoint is only as smart as those who are using it. In the military, business and even in NASA, misuse of PowerPoint can cause confusion and frustration. In the hands of a poor communicator, PowerPoint can spread misinformation, leading to bad decision-making. But we will also look at the flip side of the coin: despite the pervasiveness of elaborate PowerPoint presentations within the military, we will also look at PowerPoint presentations that would be considered poor by conventional standards, but actually communicated a message far more effectively than many other presentations.
I think there's a great deal of truth in what Capt. Burke has to say here. Powerpoint is a fantastic tool and used correctly has a great deal of utility. Unfortunately its ubiquitous nature and ease of use have meant that people have started to use it far too often, and for the wrong reasons.

Col. Thomas X. Hammes (Ret.), author of the excellent Sling and the Stone, is scathing of the overuse of powerpoint. Writing in the Armed Forces Journal he has the following to say:
...as soon as they graduate, our people return to a world driven by a tool that is the antithesis of thinking: PowerPoint. Make no mistake, PowerPoint is not a neutral tool — it is actively hostile to thoughtful decision-making. It has fundamentally changed our culture by altering the expectations of who makes decisions, what decisions they make and how they make them.
I don't necessarily agree that PowerPoint is hostile to thinking, at least not in the business environment, but the spirit of the article is correct in my opinion. PowerPoint, like Excel and other members of the Microsoft Office package, is widely abused and used for functions to which it is simply not suited.

Taking as an assumption that most people who are likely to read this have sat through plenty of PowerPoint presentations I think it can be taken as red that they can be immensely dull, to the point of eliminating your ability to learn anything meaningful from them. I recently attended a seminar on gas supply, a topic which I actually a passing interest in, but which was rendered almost incomphensible by the presenter's total devotion to his slides above his ideas. Gesturing wildly at vast reams of information projected on the wall he lost track of the fact he was there to talk about the ideas, not marvel in the complexities of slides.

I've seen colleagues spend substantial amounts of time finding just the right clip art, or a sound effect which will amuse the audience for perhaps 2-3 seconds. Rather than concentrating on the content of their presentation.

I have long since been converted to the school of Presentation Zen. I recommend you take a look at the blog, which is updated fairly regularly with good ideas and concepts to consider. The one thing I have learned about PowerPoint is that at the end of the day, it is a tool to support the presenter, not the presentation in itself.

One idea which I have worked to is to reduce a slide to no more than a handful of words (6 or so) and a single image on any given slide, the focus is then on you and your ability to deliver your ideas with the support of what is on the screen behind you. What you use for the image depends on context, I've run the gamut from deeply serious black and white images of people sleeping rough, to whimsical cartoons like Calvin and Hobbs.

The point is that you are then forced to be the provider of information, and your audience will look to you for guidance as you present. This gives you the opportunity for flexibility and adaptability, to move at your own pace and think on your feet about what information you want to share with your audience and how to do it.

Anyone interested in how to present their ideas should take a look at this page, written by Garr Reynolds there are some useful insights to consider, and it sums up what I've been talking about above in significantly more depth.

And don't forget that it is possible to embed youtube videos and even websites into PowerPoint slides if needs be. I've done both and they're a great way of breaking the session up and changing the rhythm to keep your audience interested.

Take a look, see what you think and consider how you use the tools. At the end of the day, you should be the one delivering the message, not a computer screen.

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