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Your next health risk in your organisation: death by PowerPoint

Sep 27, 2010 Business Daily, Management

“Does your organization have an overly complex presentation culture? If you’re not sure, ask yourself the following questions: How often are meetings dominated by long presentations with dozens of slides? How much time do people spend preparing, revising, and emailing different versions of slide decks? To what extent are managers assessed by the depth and scope of information that they present in their slides rather than the results they produce?”

RON ASHKENAS, blogs.hbr.org (6 July 2010)

If you work for a large modern organization, there is a new ailment you need to add to the possible maladies that may befall you at work: death by PowerPoint.

You know it’s true. How many huge slide decks, littered with interminable tables and graphs and endless bullet points, were you forced to endure last week? How engaged were you? And how much do you remember of what you saw and heard?

Once upon a time, PowerPoint was a breakthrough communication tool, a way to bring life to meetings and convey information in snazzy new ways. Early adopters revelled in the fact that you could summarize long arguments into a set of bullet points, add graphics and deploy visual imagery to liven up your presentation, and display pie charts and the like at the touch of a button. For a while, PowerPoint and other slide-presentation tools were actually fun, and they worked.

It didn’t last, did it? Now, every Tom, Dick and Hatari in the organization has become a PowerPoint jock who thinks he must turn every damn thing into a slide presentation. People no longer discuss anything – they stare at screens as an unending procession of facts and figures assault them. People no longer develop a compelling argument – they just reduce it to a set of inane bullet points.

Ron Ashkenas suggested some simple rules in his recent HBR blog post. First, understand that a presentation is a way of provoking thought and presenting a point of view – not a place to dump data. Presentations are not reports – they should be bright and lively and put something across forcefully – not numb the victim into submission.

Second, clarify the purpose of each and every presentation before you begin it. Why are you all gathered together? What do you want to achieve in the meeting? A slide deck is merely a convenient means to an end – it isn’t a product in itself. It should lead to a decision or solve a problem. Those things matter to organizations – not arrays of slides.

Lastly, enforce a presentation protocol. If you want to rescue yourself and your people from a slow death, attach rules to presentations. Put a number limit on slides, or a time limit on presentations. I have done this myself at many seminars: I only allow presenters a maximum of ten slides each, and even enforce a minimum font size. In terms of allocating time, I propose a minimum 2-to-1 ratio for business meetings: twice as much time to discuss as to present.

What slide-happy executives are not realizing is this: in modern communication, less is definitely more. In this over-communicated age where people are bombarded with information from all directions and at all hours, you don’t stand a chance of being heard or remembered if all you are doing is adding to the burden. People’s attention is a rare commodity these days. When you have it, you have to make the most of it. That means making just one or two memorable points. It means crafting minimalist slides that make the point uniquely. It means using just the minimum amount of data to support your case. Then, move to discussion, decision and solution. Those are the things that matter in business, not squandering your life looking at unstructured, ill-thought-out compendiums of unnecessary information.

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