PowerPoint Critics Swing Away at Bad Pitching

PowerPoint Critics Swing Away at Bad Pitching

Let me start off by thanking the one person who signed up for “Persuasive PowerPoint Presentations” through Newton Community Education. Unfortunately, I am unable to teach the course this month because you are not four people, which is the minimum class size for courses offered by NCE. It is possible that we will try again in the spring, so you should start talking it up to at least three of your close friends.

I suppose I am not surprised that there was a paucity of Newtonians dying to hear my PowerPointers. The art of using visuals in persuasive speaking is experiencing a strong backlash, concentrated on its most popular technology. PowerPoint is no longer hip. The barrage of bullets has left blood in the water, and the cynical sharks are circling. PowerPoint is still occupying center stage, but Statler and Waldorf are just getting warmed up.

In fact, when I was gathering examples of good and bad PowerPoint decks for using my class, one of my potential sources said she had recently attended a workshop on presenting data visually, and the takeaway was “never use PowerPoint.” She and others pointed me to Edward Tufte, a statistician and expert in visual design, especially the presentation of complex data (“data visualization”). Tufte is a vehement anti-PowerPoint crusader, who compares the program to a prescription drug with dangerous side-effects, and Stalinist totalitarianism. The snappy title of the article in that first link is “PowerPoint is Evil.”  (Sub-title: “Power corrupts.  PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.”)

Yikes.

All I wanted to do was get people to stop reading their slides. (There was probably going to be more to the course than that, but really that was the main point.) I didn’t realize that I might be contributing to the fall of civilization by encouraging people to use their bullets responsibly.

Let’s be clear — I absolutely deplore bad PowerPoint, maybe even more than your typical tortured audience member. That’s why I thought I should teach a course in how to use the tool more effectively. I figured my strong distaste for bad presentations qualified me to teach people how to make good ones. Tufte appears to have channeled a similar distaste into a campaign against the genre. From my perspective, it is the mis-use, and perhaps over-use, of the tool that is the problem. But that doesn’t make it a bad tool.

If I Had a Hammer

Every Problem is a NailPowerPoint may be a victim of the law of the instrument, Abraham Maslow’s oft-quoted observation about the over-use of readily-available methods to solve a problem: If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The use of PowerPoint certainly has proliferated over the last 15 years or so, to the point where it is an omnipresent fixture in conference rooms, science labs, and classrooms. And as its use has spread from the cutting-edge early-adopters to the mainstream, it has been picked up by more and more people who use it … well, badly. Sometimes very badly. Sometimes very badly indeed.

But that’s nothing a good community ed course can’t fix, right? Why throw the hammer out with the bad construction?

I am reminded of discussing mediation with other practitioners when it first became a mainstream approach to settling civil litigation. “I hate mediation,” many said, relishing the contrariness of their view. “The mediator just separates the parties, tells them about potential weaknesses in their cases, then drives their settlement numbers together until there’s an overlap and splits the difference.”

“Oh, I get it,” I thought. (But managed not to say.) (Usually.) “You hate bad mediation. Well, that’s hardly a brilliant insight. So do I. So does everybody.”

And, by the way, in the scenario you just described, the case settled. So whatever complaint you have about weaknesses in the process, it was better than nothing at all.

The same is true for PowerPoint. I hate bad PowerPoint. I want it to be replaced with good PowerPoint wherever possible. But usually it’s better than no visuals at all. I mean, is that the alternative that Tufte and the other PowerPoint haters want? A return to presentations without visuals, in which “talking heads” simply deliver the same speeches, only without a slideshow behind them? I don’t recall those meetings being any less boring than bad PowerPoint presentations. At least creating a PowerPoint deck means that the speaker has spent some time thinking about what he wants to say, and using slides requires him to stay on message for the most part. Trashing the use of visuals because they could (and should) be better is some form of hysterical blindness.

To be fair, Tufte in particular is focused on one common use of PowerPoint for which the program may be ill-suited — the presentation of complex data in a way that allows a thoughtful comparison of data sets. And it may be a legitimate gripe to say that PowerPoint does not do that well. Presenters who are responsible for communicating that sort of information to an audience should develop a skill set in visual presentations that ranges beyond PowerPoint into whatever medium it is that Tufte would prefer that they use.

But for an office manager who just needs to tell everyone about new reporting requirements at a monthly meeting? I think Tufte and others may be allowing the pursuit of perfection to be the enemy of excellence (and even to impede incremental improvement).

The Difference Between Good Pitching and Bad Pitching is Location

Obviously there are many things that PowerPoint users could do to improve their presentations. (Well, not so obviously, perhaps, or else they would do them. But obvious enough, apparently, that nobody felt the need to sign up for my class.) And in addition to certain types of presentations for which PowerPoint is insufficient, there may be occasions, and great orators, that make visual aids entirely superfluous.

Trial attorneys are still working out the kinks, and are facing the same criticisms as other PowerPoint users. There are aspects of trial presentation for which visuals and graphics are very useful, even essential, and others for which good old fashioned oral advocacy still works by itself.

But there is another phase of civil litigation for which PowerPoint is very well suited. So mediation is going to make its second appearance in this post.

I have had great success using PowerPoint to make initial presentations at mediation. It is an arena in which even its weaknesses are strengths.

Advantages of PowerPoint at Mediation

  • Presentation that covers everything, but not in great detail
  • Ability to organize lists of facts by topic
  • Simple graphics
    • Excerpts of document images
    • Timelines
    • Damage figures
  • Handouts that mediator can refer to in private sessions

See?

My favorite technique is using images of actual documents, in which you then highlight and expand the important quotes. Drop a few of those in between bulleted lists of your favorite facts, sprinkle in a few charts that justify your damage figures, and you’ve got yourself the makings of a presentation that conveys to the other side (and the mediator) that you are ready for trial, have a good command of the facts, and that you are not going to alter your settlement position without some clear justification.

Just don’t read your slides.