PowerPoint Abuse

Years and years ago at university, I was an engineering student taking classes I was not completely comfortable with. I did not mind the math, science, and engineering classes but had difficulty with ones classified as humanities or language. This really is not news to most engineering types. There seems to be biases with how brains work and if you tip it too far one way it makes it very hard to go the other way.

So, in short, I struggled with the English classes in my first year. In the end I did well but this was more based on my ability to think creatively instead of my ability to master the nuances of the English language and write wonderful essays or stories.

My common theme during these classes was how computers related to society. I remember writing one essay about how computers were only a tool and it was up to people how they were used. This was back in the days that popular fiction depicted computers as being inherently evil and most average people considered computers as potentially dangerous. Perhaps it really was not that way in 1983 but I certainly perceived people’s mistrust of what computers could do.

This leads to the topic of PowerPoint. Doing presentations has always been a mainstay of corporate environments. At IBM, it was all about using transparencies with overhead projectors. You know, the ones that you could draw on or print out with special plotters. People actually used to switch the images by switching pages manually. The content, however, is the same format as today. People trying to impress someone (a boss, co-workers, or maybe even a CEO), invest huge amounts of time trying to sell a pitch using whatever resources they have available. PowerPoint happens to be a tool overused for this purpose.

I recently came across a video that mocks the abuse of PowerPoint at Creative Leadership Forum . In this video, it is clearly shown how PowerPoint content can become a joke. As most people, I have seen all these elements in the countless meetings I have attended since 1989.

I remember one individual at IBM that focused solely on his image and not any technical skills. This meant that he was really good at presenting statistics at meetings but had no technical understanding of how things worked. Somehow this was acceptable. Not only that, he was promoted solely on his ability to put together a compelling presentations without understanding what the numbers really meant.

Whenever I spot presentations that are too polished and do not actually hold any real value technically (and they are meant to address a technical issue) I really get annoyed. I know the upper level managers will love it but completely miss the point that it has no implementation value. I get even more annoyed when I see people getting rewarded for bad behavior.

I suspect there is a drive for managers of power to have things be easy to consume and decide. Things which are visible in simple form are more likely to be judged to have value.

The warning I would give is that the presenter that focuses on how things look will obviously miss how things actually are and will more interested in appeasing management appetites than telling things as they really are.

It seems this topic has opened up some old wounds. I’ll have to remember to let them heal properly this time.

Anyways, take a look at the video and it might teach you something. Humor often makes light of things and this usually leads to change based on people realizing how silly they look.

Live near Brisbane, Australia. Software developer currently focused on iOS and Android. Avid Google Local Guide

Posted in Observations
4 comments on “PowerPoint Abuse
  1. Nik Newark says:

    Some researchers has shown that humans are not well adapted to reading and listening simultaneously. This means that the bulk of the PowerPoint documents that get authored (which contain several slides containing lists of bullet points for people to “talk to”), tend to be less effective than a talk without accompanying slides. I’ve recently been listening to a collection of “great speeches of the 20th century” (Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill etc) – and the question has been asked : will there ever be a collection of “great PowerPoint presentations of the 21st century”?

    I think this is a problem with the way PPT is commonly used – people often find themselves presenting someone else’s PPT slides, so there is a nasty tendency to include _all_ of the information in the slides themselves.

    This is something that many people would try to avoid, and this may indirectly lead to the tendency towards glossy / content free presentations.

    See http://www.smh.com.au/news/technology/powerpoint-presentations-a-disaster/2007/04/03/1175366240499.html for more information

  2. jeffreymuir says:

    I thought this was extremely clever to express the problem this way.

    It really shows the potential negative impact that Powerpoint presentations have on an audience. It also makes sense. I have noticed that when I see a presentation, I am more likely to read ahead on the slide than listen to what the speaker is saying. This is obviously not was intended.

    The spoken word can have much more impact if the audience is not distracted. This observation implies that presentations should only include Powerpoint when the speaker is trying to better illustrate the subject. This implies graphs or pictures (things that cannot be talked about alone).

    It is great that you shared this here. Thanks for posting this.

  3. Neeraja says:

    Hello Jeff,

    I agree with most of your blog postings, like this one. I was wondering if you can put a link, “email to your friend” on the blog pages. I am sure many of the visitors would want to share some of the postings. I, for one, would like to.

    Thanks,
    – Neeraja

  4. jeffreymuir says:

    Neeraga,

    Sorry, but I do not have control on how this web site is run. I can recommend using a reader such as the Google reader to be able to forward interesting posts.

    Regards,
    Jeff

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