CXO

Lessons from the PowerPoint graveyard

Although PowerPoint can help you craft a slick presentation, the outcome may not convey the message you intended. TechRepublic columnist Bob Artner took a look at some of his PowerPoint presentations and offers advice on mistakes to avoid.


Not too long ago, I received an e-mail from Operations asking me to clean out my files on an old server they were planning to shut down. Looking through my directory, I didn’t see much I needed to save. However, I did spend some time looking at one kind of file: PowerPoint presentations.

I don’t know about your organization, but where I work, we’re pretty big on PowerPoint. There is a kind of unwritten rule that every meeting or conference call must contain at least one PowerPoint presentation. Being the pack rat that I am, I held on to a lot of them.

In this column, I want to talk about what I learned by looking at some of these old presentations—what they told me about how to establish and articulate priorities for my team. It was a sobering lesson for me, and hopefully, you can learn from my mistakes.

It’s not about the slides, but the strategies
To be clear, I’m not talking about the PowerPoint presentations themselves. Don’t get me wrong: I think that there are way too many poor presentations being made to IT departments across the globe every day. In the past, TechRepublic has published some suggestions on how to make your presentations more effective.

But rather than focus on whether or not a particular slide was well designed, I was looking at what these presentations told me about how we rolled out and explained new projects or provided information on new corporate goals and strategies.

To my chagrin, I found that we often did more poorly than I had remembered. Not that I ever thought we were perfect, but good Lord. Here are the major mistakes I made, broken down by category.

Where was the clarity?
More than once, as I looked through a presentation that I had created, I couldn’t recall a number of the references in the slides. Now, if the author of a presentation can’t remember what he was talking about, there’s not much chance his audience will either. Too often, when we lay out a new strategy or direction for an organization, we hesitate to speak plainly, instead hiding our meaning behind bloated rhetoric (“This changes EVERYTHING!”) or cute jokes.

Here’s a more recent example. In fact, it’s from a presentation that I gave earlier this week to my boss, and his boss. One of my slides had the following bullet point: It’s not either/or but BOTH. The point I was making in the meeting was that a particular choice we were contemplating was a false dichotomy—we should do both and not choose between the two options. That is how I explained it during the meeting, but I wanted to grab their attention with the cryptic bullet point in the PowerPoint.

While the meeting went fine, in retrospect I realize that I made a mistake. When creating a document that advocates a particular strategy, I should have included a fuller explanation; otherwise, no one who sees the presentation without having been in the meeting will understand the context. In other words, it’s okay to be clever, but you also have to be clear.

Where was the repetition?
When going through those old PowerPoints, I found three that outlined a particular business initiative. I was surprised to find that, done over a period of several months, each presentation used different language to justify the project and define its goals. The three had little in common.

I’ve talked before about the importance of repetition when a technical manager communicates to his or her staff. This is even more important when defining a new initiative and trying to sell it to your staff.

Studies have repeatedly shown <grin> that people can’t remember new concepts after hearing or reading them only once. It’s vital that you pick the three or four most important facts about a project and keep repeating them. Reinforcing your message is essential if you want it to sink home.

Where was the follow-through?
Looking at that same series of presentations, I found a few action items that looked as if they’d been cut and pasted without changes. In other words, in the first meeting, we introduced a project and established action items. In a follow-up meeting, we listed the same action items, and did so again during a third meeting.

In retrospect, it’s easy to understand why we didn’t make too much progress on that particular initiative.

You can’t just identify action items without assigning them to specific individuals running teams or task forces. Further, you need to provide a due date and a mechanism for updates to see what progress, if any, is being made.



Inspiration optional; information essential
When rolling out a new strategy or direction to your team, don’t ever forget that you will almost certainly know more about the project than anyone else in the room. (If that’s not true, you shouldn’t be giving the presentation in the first place.) While it’s important to “fire up the troops” and get them excited about the effort, it’s even more important to tell them what the project is all about in the first place. Clearly explaining a new initiative, including its implication for the organization, could go a long way towards motivating your team—without the need for a rousing speech.

After you’ve crafted a message that works, you must do two other things. First, repeat the salient points in later meetings and discussions. This repetition will help people remember the main goals. Second, you must assign action items with dates and hold people accountable for hitting those dates. If you keep those three steps in mind, then you’ll have profited from this excursion into the PowerPoint graveyard.

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