“I have to work on my slides.”
We were 13 MBA interns in marketing this summer. I heard that cringe worthy phrase from at least one of my peers at least once a day, starting at around week three. It infuriated me.
“Want to go out tonight?”
“I can’t, I have to work on my slides.”
“Let’s take a trip on Sunday.”
“Can’t. I need an appendix.”
“What are you working on tomorrow at work?”
“Slides. I need more.”
Let’s get the obvious criticism out of the way: what were they doing from 8-5 every day? We only had one project for the entire summer. Surely, they could have confined their slide-making to working hours. More than anything else, this reveals the insecurities, anxieties, and obsessions of my peers, particularly with regard to jobs. I’ve written about that before. However, I want this article to focus more on business, not business school, and the problem with the pervasiveness of PowerPoint.
If Bill Gates is truly the philanthropist that he claims to be then he should use his wealth to buy back Microsoft and change one thing and one thing only: kill PowerPoint (and maybe bring back Paint, just sayin’).
PowerPoint has become such a perverted institution in corporate America (and other settings too – I’ve read that it is rampant in the military) that we are at the point where we are better off without it.
Inherent in the rise of PowerPoint is a decline in managerial reading and writing. Where did the good old corporate memo go? There is considerable value in a document that comprehensively covers a topic. When we squeeze everything on to “slides” appearance and style can trump content. It also becomes more difficult to present content, because space considerations and on which slide content appears becomes an issue. Slides have less fidelity and more static, so presenting and communicating messages through slides becomes a constant back and forth of questions, revisions, and answers. Sometimes this tag goes on for so long that the PowerPoint, and its adjoining message, simply gets lost. We get sick of dealing with it, so we just file it away.
The decline in managerial reading and writing has been exacerbated by our click-happy brains and an addiction to our phones. Reading and writing take concentration, which our brains are becoming wired to avoid. On the other hand, the bullet points, animations, and separate slides of PowerPoint presentations are just the distraction that our toddler brains need. Less concentration, less fidelity.
You just want the “higher-level” details, you say? No time for all of the nitty-gritty details. Not a problem with a memo. Just write an executive summary or introductory section. Don’t have time to read memos? Print the memo out and read it with your cell phone set aside (and the internet turned off on your computer, or surely an e-mail will nag at you). You may feel anxious during the first few reading sessions, but after a few the feeling of impending doom will dissipate and your memo time will become your special me-time. More of a save the trees type of person? Not a problem. I hear that 2-in-1 computers and tablets, especially those with styluses, have come a long way in emulating that feeling of pen and paper in your hands.
If we can liberate our society from the presentation-cum-memo then PowerPoint can be used for one of its original and intended purposes: presenting. Rather than cramming every bit of information on to slides, we can use it as a visual aid while we are presenting. There may even be times that you find a PowerPoint presentation completely unnecessary and do away with the need for overhead projected visual aids.
Up until this point I’ve been a bit facetious. However, there are entire companies that have completely done away with PowerPoint. There’s a small company in Seattle called Amazon that does not allow PowerPoints. At the beginning of meetings, they have a quiet time for everyone to read well prepared briefs. No one at Amazon wastes hours of days perfectly aligning text boxes and making slides and colors more “readable” for their manager. Amazon certainly isn’t paying consultants $250 an hour to prepare countless “decks.”
Up until now I have been documenting a communication issue. However, my peers’ belief that “doing slides” actually constitutes real work for a business manager is a true business problem. Rather than managing and performing analysis and making decisions, my generation has reduced management to preparing presentations. That’s asinine. It means that the presentation is the be all and end all of business. Create a presentation, send it to someone in an e-mail, and forget that you ever made it. Someone asks you about the project a few months later? Just shoot them the presentation. They’ll definitely get the point and understand all of the context around it.
At the beginning of my internship I had a discussion with my manager about communication and work products. He’s aware that PowerPoint has become the main channel for communicating information. He laments it, but admits that he has succumbed to the presentation-cum-memo wave. However, in the internship I was responsible for making two formal presentations. I had no other responsibilities that would face outward to the rest of the company. We decided that instead of making a dense presentation-cum-memo, I could write a document and create a separate PowerPoint as a visual aid during my presentation.
The document that I wrote was a few under 30 pages and very well received by my manager. It effectively documented and preserved the majority of the research that I performed during the summer. As I began thinking about my mid-term presentation, I storyboarded my story and then began creating PowerPoint slides which followed the flow of the story. I periodically shared updates with my manager, and he provided me with feedback, both on content and style. Creating the slides and refining my story was an integrated part of my daily routine. I never had a day where I was ‘making slides.’ By periodically sharing slides and more importantly, ideas, with my manager, I was best able to leverage his expertise, learn from him, and really become a thought partner with him on the project. There was never a big reveal where he held his breath to see what his intern had been doing for the whole summer.
Importantly, I was able to pack the PowerPoint presentation with graphs, diagrammatic examples, and some bullet points, tables, and lists. No silly stock photos or dense text blocks. The final presentation, which was slated for 40 minutes, was approximately 25 slides long, and accompanied by an appendix about twice as long, packed with more data, charts, explanations of proposals, and data methodology explanations. I did not include the appendix so much for the presentation as for my manager, who may want to work with the presentation and adapt it for his purposes in the future.
I couldn’t believe the amount of criticism I received when sharing the presentation, particularly with my peers, while leading up to the presentation. Their main criticisms were 1) it was drab, and 2) the slides did not convey the full message. The drabness is in part simply my style and a reflection of my less than stellar PowerPoint skills (which I assure you, I more than compensate for with actual business acumen). One of my peers commented that my slides were like a single guy’s house – not much in the way of decorations on the walls (I have some very tasteful posters, I’ll just so have you know!).
I was astounded that they would comment that the slides did not convey the entire message. That’s precisely their objective. If they wanted the whole message they should have read my report. Their presentations, while visually appealing and packed with superbly worded bulleted lists, left many questions unanswered. None of them wrote comprehensive reports, so it begs the question, what are their managers going to do now that we are gone? The information and the methodologies are gone with us, except for whatever links and Excels we may have left for them in our My Documents.
I felt rather vindicated after the presentations were over. Multiple interns and full-time employees at the company complimented me on the presentation, and in particular my delivery of the message of my presentation. I wanted my presentation to be about convincing UPS that something was a good idea. Based on the feedback, I made great strides in telling that story. I have the Peace Corps to thank for a lot of my delivery ability. I did an awful lot of public speaking in the Peace Corps (in my opinion, teachers are the best public speakers in the world. They do it for six hours a day, five days a week). We also were afforded a lot of public presentation opportunities at Kenan-Flagler, both in subject classes and in our Management Communications classes.
Much to my regret, PowerPoint is probably not going anywhere anytime soon. Here’s what I recommend:
- If you hire consultants, tell them that their time spent on PowerPoints is not billable. Hard stop.
- Work with your work supervisors to write memos, not as many PowerPoints
- Practice your reading skills and your writing skills. They go hand in hand, and are certainly not skills that you stop improving or having to worry about after middle school.
- When you have to make a PowerPoint, consider its intended use. Will it be for a formal delivered presentation or for a more informal settings?
- Storyboard your story, don’t just make your slides. Once you have a story you can create a presentation that fits it and the setting.
- Create and share, early and often. Integrate storyboarding and slide creation into your normal workflow, and then share your work products with others. See what they say, and iterate. That way there will be no surprises and no crunch at the end to “make slides.”
Effective business managers will not be PowerPoint Rangers. Business managers need to collaborate on ideas and empower analysis and idea generation on the part of others. Making slide creation a core responsibility will do nothing to further a manager’s development of these skills.