Software

Microsoft PowerPoint: Is a message's form becoming more important than its meaning?

Less-successful organizations usually focus more on internal issues. Executive and leadership coach John M McKee says that the organization's communication style is often the key to solving this problem.

 

A client works at one of the largest gaming companies in the world. He tells me that it seems there's never enough time to get everything done. He knows his priorities, but he feels ineffective.

Compare that comment with one from another client who recently joined a successful start-up company. She told me that she couldn't believe how much "extra" time she has left at the end of each business day.  After 12 years working for a large corporation, she worried that "life here is too good. Am I missing something?"

In my opinion, the key reason for their feelings is how these organizations communicate internally.

One of the biggest time frustrations for many corporate managers is how long it takes to get things moving. The first client says he recently spent about 80 percent of his time creating and then reviewing PowerPoint presentations for his boss.

He's not alone of course. Wherever I go, most larger organization use presentations, or slides, to communicate internally. One report I came across said that Microsoft estimated that there are over 30 million PowerPoint presentations made every day. The writer figures that the average presentation can take up to 10 hours to create. Based on my experience, in both examples, the numbers used don't seem farfetched.

Although most organizations today are in a more competitive environment than they've faced at any time in the past, when it comes to time management issues they're holding on to a communication approach that is neither efficient nor effective. I believe many internal "presentations" are more often about style than substance. ("Sarah, I think that when you show this to the boss, you should put a box around the numbers so they stand out against the red background you're using...Hmm, have you tried this slide with a blue background? I really liked how Gary's slides looked in the last meeting...")

In the above case of my client from the gaming business, in each presentation he was talking to just one person, the same one. (!)

The boss had asked him to explain his proposed new business strategy. He specifically wanted to see it created in PowerPoint. They made progress in the meeting, but the boss asked for changes and modifications. He requested another meeting the next day -- again using PowerPoint. The same thing happened twice more during the week. Instead of one guy talking to another over coffee to figure out what was needed and get going, they had something like a two-person conference that took place in a large, dimly lit meeting room.

Four "presentations" were required to get approval to move ahead to the next stage!

This is, simply, a waste of a company's resources. From my perspective, it was also clear evidence of why this organization is going down the tubes while their key competitor gains share and market value.

The best companies don't waste much. Especially when it comes to internal communications. When planning meetings, I suggest you use this rule of thumb:

More time spent in meetings presenting to yourselves equals

  • Less time in the marketplace
  • Less time talking to your customers
  • Less time creating solutions, better products, or systems
Management consultant and author Tom Peters said it best, "The most complex problem can be reduced to a single page if you bust a gut. Demand that of yourself."

Once you've put together that one-pager, talk it over with all those who may be affected. When everyone in the meeting (I don't care if it's two people or 22) is committed to success, they'll raise issues, find problems, and develop solutions. If not, perhaps another meeting is required. But the cost involved to have that second meeting is far less than it would be if PowerPoint were required.

And, keeping written materials to a minimum is more "human": When we talk to each other, we learn how to work together more effectively. On the other hand, when we "present" to each other, we often lose the successful interaction that should occur when multiple minds are focused on an issue.

My client in the start-up has found this to be a truth. She says they get things done while at the same time they save a lot of money because they're more effective at using time.

I think most small organizations know this is a true competitive advantage. The large ones would be smart to follow their lead.

Use your extra time wisely.....

John

Leadership Coach

About

John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

33 comments
sissy sue
sissy sue

Managers and Directors are too far from the real work Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that meetings have become status symbols in the American corporate world. Upper management spends an extraordinary amount of time in meetings. Obviously, the more meetings one attends, the more important one is. I recall Directors arguing about the wording of the mission statement during a break in an all-day meeting. This is what they had been discussing during the meeting. How big a waste of time is this? Caught up in the latest business fad, they are constantly re-creating the wheel. Who isn't for excellent quality, customer satisfaction, on-time delivery, yada, yada, ad nauseum? Why do you need to express these objectives in a mission statement and then spend all day doing it? It's the underlings who are actually accomplishing things, getting product out the door, and satisfying customer demands. How does an all-day meeting constitute work? I've known Directors to take their laptops to meetings with them so that they can at least keep up on their email. How much attention are they paying to the talking heads and PowerPoint presentations during the course of those all-day meetings anyway? Smaller companies don't have the time and resources to waste in this way. They have to be "leaner and meaner" or they will go down the pan. That is why I much prefer to work for a small company like a startup. At least the work is necessary and real.

Slayer_
Slayer_

When I look at all the time wasted. The internal training sessions is even worse, they are complicated flash programs, complete with actors and animations. Why is so much time wasted on this crap. And worse yet, most of these presentations use passages lifted right off the BBBBS (Big Book of Business Bullshit). Reorganizations make a partularily bad number of presentations. it's amazing that you can read entire presentations, and not find any useful information... but the slides were pretty.

maclovin
maclovin

Powerpoint is for children (i.e. Execs) that feel artsy-fartsy presentations somehow makes what their selling (crap) a "cut-above" the rest.....even though you spend all this time setting this crap up, then waiting for it to change slides, fumbling with the controller....blah blah blah... Powerpoint! For KIds! It should be made by Mattel. Get your message across plain and simple, and efficiently. After all, that's what is expected of most workers....until the CEO "needs" and "presentation". Let your damn product speak for itself. Oh, that's right, you can't, because it's the same as what someone else is selling with a more fancy name....until they come up with a better name...and back and forth and so on.

Maarek
Maarek

It's all about show, class, and they way the presenter put the whole thing together. I've been to meetings where I actually feel asleep and others where I was almost upset that the whole thing was over. Frankly, the good presenters are highered by multiple companies to train their users and clients so that they never have to pick up a manual. For the rest of us, it's shuteye in the board room. Too bad though, their presenters are the ones who put the whole presentation together, they should stand up there since they pictured the whole meeting in their mind beforehand.

alistair.k
alistair.k

While its fun and easy to blame some people's addiction to slide based presentations for the ills of organisation communication its more than that. Its about people focusing on the process, not the outcome, its people putting style over substance, its a dozen other things. I wasn't sure how to vote in the poll because we don't use a lot of PowerPoint here, but we do burn a whole lot of time in meetings, discussions, focus groups, polling, sending out documents for collaboration, etc. etc. I forget who said this but I do agree: The best way to stifle innovation is to put a committee in charge of it. Don't have big meetings with the world and his dog invited, don't CC: half the company in when you send out an email. Just get on the phone, or IM, or ping an email to the one or two people who matter and get decissions made, make progress. Yeah, sometime you call Tim, speak to him, then call Bob, then call Sue and ask her to call you back when she's spoken to Fred, but IMO/IME its quicker to have a series of brief conversations with a bunch of people than it is to drag them all to a conference room and sit for two hours making a great big deal out if it. Horses for courses, of couse some real big scale stuff needs a lot of people involved and a lot of time, but a lot of stuff just doesn't but gets it anyway, because "busy" feels like "work"

mfarfan
mfarfan

The title of the article was catching, the content loosely addresses the issue and the voting closes the loose (confusing) loop. Are we talking about the communication process or the tool we used to communicate? Tom Peters? statement is clearly about communication. Whether you want to put it in PowerPoint or on a paper is up to us. PowerPoint is a tool, is neither good nor bad. We may develop bad habits but don?t blame the tool. So when communicating the questions are: 1) What do I want to communicate? 2) Which is the audience? 3) Which is the right tool? If you fail to address the first two then no doubt that you are wasting time using PowerPoint (or whatever tool you have chosen).

neiltoz
neiltoz

I think most presentations are a waste of effort, although I will grant that putting them together helps one think problems through - to some extent. However, I remember a very early Mac ad that showed the progression of a "back of the napkin" sketch into a beautiful presentation. The problem was the sketch depicted a helicoter car, straight from the mind of a 3rd grader! The computer graphics made it seem like the "helicar" was ready to fly, when in reality it was just a stupid idea wrapped in a pretty presentation. The graphics made the skin of an idea look whole and complete. For my money, time is better spent thinking, not presenting.

pscheer
pscheer

For anyone thinking of using -- or not using -- PowerPoint, Edward Tufte's masterful essay, "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within" is mandatory reading. See http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/powerpoint His focus is not on the time wasted in preparation but rather on how the constraints imposed by working within the PP format enforce a systematic dumbing down of the resulting presentation for all but the most experienced and professional of presenters.

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

PowerPoint - Presentations, reminds me of Crayola - Crayons. Is PowerPoint really THE way of presentations? Presentations (good or bad) have been around for a long time. So has their abuse. I think the real problem is usage. What is the purpose of a presentation? I always thought they were for educating groups. Imparting basic information to several at once. Creating a presentation for one boss seems silly. Unless the boss is going to demo your presentation. Personally, I prefer tables (spreadsheets or databases) to display a lot of information. A few drawings might help. Cheer up. Things could be worse. Your table could be done with a legal pad and pen. I still carry them around the job.

david.cuthill
david.cuthill

I have been through this. 30 years ago. It was a badge of honour to use acetate overheads that were hand-written, not done in letraset (stick-on lettering). What did they do before Powerpoint? They used lurid green "Banda" handouts and dye-transfer pencil on to acetate. Unless it was a business plan - where you got an administrative assistant to prepare the slides letter-by-letter in Letraset. PP imposes a discipline. If you can prepare your message and distil it to a few shapes, curves and bullets on a Powerpoint slide or 6, you've done a good job. Obviously, misuse of any technology is bad - and bad for business. It is stating the obvious to assert that doing bad things is bad. Now people are saying "You can't prepare a business-plan? No Problem. We aren't elitist here, and we never read these anyway. Powerpoint badd..." Plus ca change etc...

zolad
zolad

Abso-blerry-lutely! A penny (in fact a pound!) for your thought.

donzall
donzall

I liked this piece and I agree with the general message. PowerPoint is most effective for one-way communication to a group audience. It should, however, have a sheet-limitation of 15 in my opinion... There are a lot of ways to use slides but the most common way is apparently to overwhelm your audience with over 40 slides per hour crammed full of text, images, incomprehensible tables and superfluous animations. It is most effective when you use it like a 'storyboard' for the story you're telling. When used correctly however, slides can also help structure meetings but only by displaying the agenda and no more than a few bullet points per sheet. All too often it's used as the focal point of a meeting or presentation, when it's meant as a supporting tool to illustrate and (re)iterate the points you're trying to get across. If you can do without it, by all means. If you use it, keep a few things in mind: * Limit the number of sheets, don't try to put everything you're going to talk about on them; * Keep the information on a sheet to a bare minimum. They should act as reminders, summaries and supporting illustrations. Not transcripts. * And in line with John's point: Keep it simple; focus on your message (and for that matter don't use animations unless absolutely necessary); When presenting, also focus on your audience. Don't look at the display behind you and read out what the sheets say. If you need reminders of the structure or content of your story, you can use the presenter view so you can see what slides are next, see the notes you made for yourself per slide and keep an eye on the time at the same time. Preparing a good presentation could still take 10 hours, but I'd rather spend 8 hours on content and 2 on some supporting slides than the other way around.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Marshall McLuhan, and so very much more. In addition, you got yourself a bunch of people for real in a room, and you do what? Power Point? To where in hell has our ancient sense of Oral Tradition gone? I am also reminded of a Life or National Geographic photograph of the storyteller in some jungle somewhere, with his eyes wide open, hands and fingers spread in the air, regaling a semicircle of youngsters at a campfire, those youngsters mouths agape, transfixed. I expect no less from any soul who posts here.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

My employer has 500+ techs spread out over the continental US and Alaska. For most corporate-level communications, a quick chat would work. And we do get a lot of updates on conference calls. For less complex subjects, an email blast usually suffices. For more complex subjects (benefits changes, open season, changes to employee rating systems, etc.), a PowerPoint presentation is the most economical means of presentation, even if two people spend two weeks generating it.

fatman65535
fatman65535

I think it all depends on the intended audience. Shortly after I came on board, I had to present an item before the IT group (10 people). The first thing I told them that I was not going to subject them to `Cruel and Unusual Punishment` - aka "Death By Power Point". After a few good laughs, I got down to the presentation. In my case, I was not trying to `sell something` or `impress someone`, just get a point across, and preparing a Power Point slide show was, IMHO, a waste of time. Now, if you are preparing a presentation that will be delivered to many stakeholders - like the changes in our company's insurance coverage; then a Power Point presentation is quite likely worth the time. Especially, in our case, if an employee has questions, they can refer to the presentation on our intranet.

Ryan_Fischer
Ryan_Fischer

I could not agree with this guy more. My supervisor wants to meet weekly to know my progress when she does not have a clue what I am talking about in the first place. To top if off we waste about an hour or two talking about stuff she could check the status of in the work order system. Then the boss wants to have monthly meetings for all employees and waste two hours talking about stuff that does not matter to me at all. Can I just get back to work people? I have stuff to do and no help or time to do it. Thanks

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

The problem in American business is that we are no longer given the choice of tool. "We need that in a Powerpoint," and "Do that up in Powerpoint" are ubiquitous phrases over here.

Meadowsong
Meadowsong

Really like the link provided to "PowerPoint Does Rocket Science--and Better Techniques for Technical Reports". Sometimes there are better ways to relay INFORMATION than by bullet points.

A_flj_
A_flj_

If you need something for handing out, a presentation done as you suggest is worthless - too little information. If you make it fat, containing real info, IMO it's useless too. If it's made to be presented, a whiteboard plus half a page containing a bulleted list with what you intend to present, plus maybe some printed handouts containing reports and graphs readily generated by your ERP or CRM should be more than enough. If the reason is to spread info, a real document, structured into sections and subsections, is a lot more familiar to people. There's one and only one legitimate place for presentations, IMO. On large screens, where they run without user assistance, in kiosk mode. I suppose this is also the scenario least commonly covered via powerpoint.

marjorie.stanford@HCAHealthcare.com
marjorie.stanford@HCAHealthcare.com

It helps to create the slides and talk through the presentation to be provided. Used like the note cards in prep for a speech it works. Focus should be on the content - not the artwork and color. If it's one bullet per slide---make those bullets count. The story is in the presentation, not the slide deck.

A_flj_
A_flj_

... have you tried a wiki?

sissy sue
sissy sue

Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that meetings have become status symbols in the American corporate world. Upper management spends an extraordinary amount of time in meetings. Obviously, the more meetings one attends, the more important one is. I recall Directors arguing about the wording of the mission statement during a break in an all-day meeting. This is what they had been discussing during the meeting. How big a waste of time is this? Caught up in the latest business fad, they are constantly re-creating the wheel. Who isn't for excellent quality, customer satisfaction, on-time delivery, yada, yada, ad nauseum? Why do you need to express these objectives in a mission statement and then spend all day doing it? It's the underlings who are actually accomplishing things, getting product out the door, and satisfying customer demands. How does an all-day meeting constitute work? I've known Directors to take their laptops to meetings with them so that they can at least keep up on their email. How much attention are they paying to the talking heads and PowerPoint presentations during the course of those all-day meetings anyway? Smaller companies don't have the time and resources to waste in this way. They have to be "leaner and meaner" or they will go down the pan. That is why I much prefer to work for a small company like a startup. At least the work is necessary and real.

VisualBee
VisualBee

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jhnhth
jhnhth

I'm a trainer and I must be one of very few people in the world now who can deliver a whole training course WITHOUT one single Powerpoint slide! I came to the conclusion years ago that participants in a training course learn nothing if they are just sitting and reading PPT's all day. Instead of participants listening to my voice and reading slides, I get them doing things and make the course more interesting. There might be a place for PPT in some cases but most meetings I have ever been to, a single sheet of paper with a few bullet points handed out before the meeting would have made far more sense.

Kevj
Kevj

Content should determine if PP is used and how much. Some information is better expressed visually, and some is better expressed verbally. Use the right tool for the right job!

michaellashinsky
michaellashinsky

I work in IT, specifically help desk, and I see users preparing their power point presentations. Give ten directors each an 8 megapixel camera and MS PowerPoint, and they will crash the file server saving gigs of photos and every incremental version of every power point they ever created. I see 250+ MB PPT files and 20 - 50 gig directories of photos. You know, on screen, you cannot see the difference between an 8 megapixel picture and a 30 k cropped and compressed copy of it. The projector (typically) only has 1024 x 768 resolution. One secretary in our organization spends weeks before a meeting fixing, recreating, and compressing 2 dozen executive's PPPs so they are done correctly. (After the directors and executives spend day on them first.) All just for what could be done with one bulleted list. There is a good use of time and resources.

myepals
myepals

I used to work for a the HO of a large retailer based in Bentonville Arkansas. Let me tell you this place ran on numbers like no other. Blood was squeezed from a turnip there. How? and How Much? Ask for the spread sheet. I missed the company really but even 10 years ago it was amazing how much style counted for substance. 100s of man hours went into PPPs for just a few people and the appearance was critical in someones eyes. When some were copied to paper some presentations copies would be trashed if the large areas of toner wasting black was not just so. Presentations for the unwashed masses were given less thought. Creators often waste time showing off some new kitschy presentation skill. And for the love of the god of pine trees does every bullet point need its on slide? 1.You move in 2. You make money 3.You move out 4. Count the money

mfarfan
mfarfan

Appreciate your reply and the context given. You clearly spot that I am neither in US nor working for a US company (would that habit go overseas?). However I studied in Albany (NY) and I remember that we were challenged to give presentations, as part of case study conclusion, no long than 5 slides (and probably no more than 30?). Has this change so dramatically in the last 15 years? (yep, that long is since I was in NY)

A_flj_
A_flj_

... whether you take cost into account when evaluating how good a way of relaying information is or isn't. Ten hours of an executive or a consultant for a presentation which has to be presented to five people only once is IMO a terrible way of relaying information, when taking costs into account. A nice presentation may be an excellent way of marketing a product or a service or idea, and in such a case the cost is well worth the potential gain, but that's no information relaying, and it shouldn't be called what it isn't.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

The handouts and presentation don't have to be identical. Done properly, your 'bullet list' presentation should be a separate file from the detailed printed handouts.

donzall
donzall

That's four slides right there... ;)

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

You are no doubt familiar with the American fondness for fads? Powerpoint started as a fad, but in American business, fad quite often becomes policy.

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