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Why to Fight PowerPoint’s Power

Nap by powerpointThis article is not meant to bring the news PowerPoint tends to induce boredom—we all know that—it’s about why that happens. The inspiration is the many organizations which use PowerPoint for almost every sort of document, even though that’s less productive and most people dislike seeing it.

So how did we get to this sad state? Here’s what I think got rolling when PPT came out:

First of all, creating and decorating decks was fun. It was suddenly easy to insert spiffy clipart, add color, make text into neato shapes–kind of a business version of playing with crayons and a coloring book. It’s still fun to create and decorate slides, so much so we often forget about meaningful and effective content.

Secondly, the deck presentations were impressive. When PPT came out back in the early 1990’s, audiences were rightfully wowed. Beautiful backgrounds, fancy charts, slides that seemed to move. Zowie. The PowerPoint habit lives on, even though most people are now unimpressed and many decks are crammed with text. Which brings us to the biggee…

PowerPoint dropped the bar for acceptable writing quality to an unprecedented low. All you needed to write was headlines and bullet points–didn’t even need full sentences. This is still true and I have a hunch it’s one of the main reasons PowerPoint is still prevalent and so often used inappropriately.

The Power of a Bad Habit

A quarter-century after PowerPoint hit our PCs, many who reluctantly use it say they do so because it is expected (it’s an organizational norm). Some say they use it because it supposedly helps them quickly produce a deliverable. Here is why that speed is a myth, and why breaking the PowerPoint habit is worth it.

PowerPoint is a drag on creativity

No matter how well we know the content, creating teaching, presentation and other materials requires creative thinking. Creative thinking is messy, unorganized, and scattered. PowerPoint forces users to think and work in linear fashion, which means using it fights our creative mental process. This conflict generates two overarching issues:

(a) Decks not only actually take longer to generate, they take greater effort.

(b) Our creative thinking becomes weary, which has a negative effect on how slides look and their efficacy in conveying information.

Content doesn’t flow as well

Again, no matter how well we know the content, initial ideas of how content should flow are usually less than ideal. PPT’s linear nature embeds a certain flow right from the start. We end up forcing content into that flow instead of shaping the deck around a desirable flow (often without realizing it).

Now, some people think PowerPoint makes it easy to adjust content flow because it’s easy to move slides around using the sorter. But slides are not usually discrete entities. Moving just one in order usually messes up several more… so we don’t do it, which hurts quality and efficacy.

There’s too little or way too much

On the one hand, using PPT often prompts us to leave too much content out because that’s what it “should” look like: bullet points and bullet-pointy sentences. Since these decks are often read on their own, too much of the information and message are missing.

On the other hand, many people jam text onto slides, making them hard to read on screen or on paper. Most viewers or readers don’t attempt to decipher the content—they just scan it.

In both cases, quality and efficacy again take a nose dive.

Files have too many slides/pages, and are larger

To understand this issue, compare PowerPoint to Word. When content from a deck is transferred into Word the document usually has one-third to one-half the number of pages—even when appropriately-written explanatory text is added. Take this article up to this point as an example. In Word it takes less than two pages. Most people would create seven to eighteen slides to “cover” the same content.

The above is part of what generates that death by PowerPoint experience for presentations, in particular. Presenters take longer to cover each slide and yet the information they’re presenting is not as rich.

Word files are also smaller in size, even when they include screen shots or graphics. However, to be fair, saving PPT as a condensed pdf helps reduce file size.

Most people learn less

Studies show we absorb much less of what we see on a screen versus seeing the same thing on paper (something about touching paper helps). If the document is supposed to convey information we want people to absorb or learn, we want them to print and read it. Alas, when a deck is received via email or download, many people view it on their monitor—they don’t print it.

Not PowerPoint’s Fault

Microsoft PowerPoint was and is expressly designed for showing graphic-heavy content on a monitor or other screen. It is an awesome program for that. But even if you’re thinking that’s perfect for your objectives, don’t fire up a blank deck and go to town. Step away from the keyboard and do this instead:

Consider the content—the information you want to convey—not how you want it to look. It’s the how-it-will-look factor that sucks us onto the path of bad habits.

  1. Use the Post-it method to think through the content and its flow, and to create an outline. This is an important step whether you end up using PPT or Word because it fits perfectly with creativity and sets things on an efficient path.
  2. Choose which program is best based on your objectives and how others will see or use the document.

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