Death By (To) Powerpoint

Work in the business world long enough and you won’t escape one inevitable fact – you will need to do a deck.

Deck writing has become a job in itself for me and if you follow Malcolm Gladwell’s theory, I’ve definitely logged my 10,000 hours… and then some. The issue that I have with decks is that it’s been taken too far in the mainstream. The medium has indeed become the message. People are now way too focused on the decks that they’re spending their time consumed with talking about what they’re doing instead of exactly that: doing.

There are plenty of days where I’ll walk past desks and all you’ll ever see up on the screen is powerpoint. It’s become the grease that runs the daily cogs of Corporate (insert country) and that is not a good thing.

However – if you’re going to do a deck, at least do a good one.

I’m not opposed to decks. I actually enjoy a good presentation where the presenter uses the software for it’s actual original purpose to help engage and tell their story whether in person or virtually. People are visual creatures and respond to well designed slides to better follow and remember the story being told. However people have now bastardized the medium where powerpoint slides now serve the purpose of an analytical data dump, walls of text or the worst possible sin – a replacement for the presenter themselves.

I’d like to suggest we get back to our roots and use presentation software for its intended use: story telling. Everyone is trying to just tell a story – no matter if it’s what revenue growth has looked like in the past four quarters to demo’ing the latest hack – it’s just a story at the end of the day.

So here are my simple rules that I like to keep in mind when dealing with a presentation:

#1: Never follow a presentation rule off a cliff (including mine). There are so many articles out there around how to be a better presenter. What the do’s and dont’s of presenting are, blah blah blah. The problem I have is first of all – there are no golden rules in presentations. That’s what makes it great -it’s a creative exercise that works better when it can be interpreted – and delivered in different ways. I also have an issue with alot of the advice that treats everybody like they’re the same. As if everyone liked their steak the same way (medium rare for me thanks). People are different and have different styles. Trying to change your style to fit a version of what’s the “right way” is a recipe for disaster. Often a lot of people ask me for tips on presenting and how to adopt my style and my advice is to not try so hard to adopt someone else’s style. Pick out the elements you like and fit your own personality and you’ll go miles further than trying to fully replicate someone else.

#2: Sex sells. Period.  As I said earlier – people are visual creatures. They like to respond to nice design, good user experience and pretty things. The purpose of your presentation is to keep them engaged in your story. Putting dry text and bullet points gets the point across but is it really keeping them engaged or are they fighting back yawns to keep paying attention? Now this does not mean that you have to make all your presentations a flashy, all-singing, all dancing beast or a fluffy showpiece. It just means inject creativity into each of your slides with some elements that will keep your audience paying attention, which brings me to my next point…

#3 Simple is good. Simple is hard. You don’t need to be a kick-ass designer to do a nice creative deck. It doesn’t hurt but I’ve seen equally effective and engaging decks with just the creative use of fonts, backgrounds and complementary color palettes. Just like a stage actor can keep an audience as engaged as a multi-million dollar feature film – simple can actually go a long way. One of the worst mistakes I see is that people take rule #2 to heart and start saturating their decks with copy and pastes of the latest clip art and random stock images they get off Google Images. No, no, no! Use your images sparingly, with good quality (please ignore the temptation to stretch those images thank you very much) and always with a specific purpose of helping your narrative not because it looks cool.

#4 Everytime you micro-manage someone’s deck, a kitten cries. This is for all you managers out there that love to give back your direct reports’ decks back with a gazillion markups. Remember rule #1. They are not you. Don’t try to enforce your style on them. It kills their engagement and is actually hurting their long term development. Sure – I’ve received plenty of decks from people that make me cringe but here’s the thing – unless I intend to deliver the presentation – it’s not my deck and I should not act like it is. And frankly, if it was your deck – why the hell are they doing it and not you? L-A-Z-Y. That’s not to say you can’t help. You can give suggestions, you can deliver high level commentary and examples, but never micro-manage. Of course you want your reports to look good and there’s always a minimum level of quality that you want to enforce but micro-managing is a lazy man’s way to getting there. Everyone needs to find their style and the best thing you could do for them as a leader is help them find their style and give them opportunities to practice.

So there you have it: my approach to decks. The reality is we need to cut back on our decks in general and utilize other mediums such as white board discussions or hands-on conversations that encourage more of a bias for action than powerpoint presentations do (my theory is that powerpoint actually encourages inertia by keeping people so busy writing decks).

So the next time you’re faced with a deck the first step is to ask yourself if you really need one.