The PowerPoint plague

The US Army is experiencing something of a backlash against PowerPoint after creating the ‘World’s worst PowerPoint slide’ to illustrate its strategy in Afghanistan. It probably isn’t the world’s worst slide; there must be hundreds of equally crap ones sitting on corporate laptops but most of them never get seen outside the firm’s conference rooms.

The New York Times reports:

Like an insurgency, PowerPoint has crept into the daily lives of military commanders and reached the level of near obsession. The amount of time expended on PowerPoint, the Microsoft presentation program of computer-generated charts, graphs and bullet points, has made it a running joke in the Pentagon and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Commanders say that behind all the PowerPoint jokes are serious concerns that the program stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making. Not least, it ties up junior officers — referred to as PowerPoint Rangers — in the daily preparation of slides, be it for a Joint Staff meeting in Washington or for a platoon leader’s pre-mission combat briefing in a remote pocket of Afghanistan.

This is no different from what has happened in the corporate world. What was meant to be a useful tool has, in many organisations, grown into an industry. It is not unusual for a senior executive to have a person, or even a team, that does nothing but produce PowerPoint presentations for his next meeting. I’ve never heard these people described as PowerPoint Rangers but it’s a brilliant tag and one I shall certainly use from now on.

Why has PowerPoint become so ubiquitous? This observation from General McMaster gives us a clue:

It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control.

And that’s exactly why executives love it. Even the most spurious data can be made to look scientific if it is put it into a set of whizzy graphs and charts. Baseless assertions and poorly thought through strategies can be made to look original and insightful if illustrated by a PowerPoint graphic that no-one has seen before. If you have only a vague understanding of the problems facing your organisation and no idea what to do next, a PowerPoint presentation can help you to cover all that up.

The rate of economic, social and technological change has made the business of commercial and public sector organisations a lot more complex. Increasingly, executives are finding themselves in novel and ambiguous situations. But a good PowerPoint presentation can make even the most clueless director look as if he is in control.

When you give a PowerPoint presentation, it is rare for anyone to dig too deeply beneath all the graphs and slides. Most of the audience would prefer to believe that you  know what you are doing rather than face the fact that, like them, you haven’t got a clue either. Furthermore, they don’t want anyone else to ask too many questions when they do their presentations, so it’s in no-one’s interest to break the code of silence.

This reliance on slide presentations has led to what I call PowerPoint inflation. Each storyboard (God, I hate that word!) has to be flashier than the last. Backup slides with more detail must be included just in case anyone asks an awkward question. At one international company I worked with a couple of years ago it was normal for executives to turn up to presentations with 500 slides on a laptop or memory stick. They wouldn’t go through them all but they liked to have them there just in case. Most people fear making fools of themselves in public and Powerpoint acts as a great comfort blanket; if you have a good set of slides, whatever else happens at least you won’t look like a total prat.

This is all fine if the purpose of corporate procedures is to maintain the comfort levels of senior executives. If, however, you want meetings to flow with ideas and people to ask and answer the awkward questions facing the organisation, allowing your managers to shelter behind slide-decks isn’t going to help. It’s also extremely expensive to employ people to create all this stuff.

I don’t see much sign of this changing any time soon. I know of some organisations where it seems that no meeting can be held or serious decision made without a slide-deck to work from.

Encouragingly, there have been some instances or organisations banning PowerPoint. Intellectually, I don’t like this approach. PowerPoint is, after all, only a tool. It is not the tool’s fault if people don’t use it properly; it is more likely a reflection of a deeper malaise in the organisation.

That said, if you want to change a culture and break ingrained habits it is often necessary to take bold and symbolic action. Banning PowerPoint sends out a strong message and forces people to re-think the way they work. Scott McNealy, former chairman of Sun Microsystems, once claimed that banning PowerPoint had an immediate effect on his company’s results:

We had 12.9 gigabytes of PowerPoint slides on our network. And I thought, ‘What a huge waste of corporate productivity’. So we banned it. And we’ve had three unbelievable record-breaking fiscal quarters since. Now I would argue that every company in the world, if it would just ban PowerPoint, would see its earnings skyrocket. Employees would stand around going: ‘What do I do? Guess I’ve got to go to work’.

Slightly tongue-in-cheek, perhaps, but I often wonder what would happen if more organisations took this approach. Even if they didn’t see an instant hike in their share prices I doubt that a PowerPoint ban would have much of a negative effect on performance.

Of course, this is not going to happen. Too many executives have become too reliant on slide presentations. Stripped of these props they would feel vulnerable and exposed. As Chris Argyris said:

Whenever human beings are faced with any issue that contains significant embarrassment or threat, they act in ways that bypass, as best they can, the embarrassment or threat.

Organizational defensive routines are actions or policies that prevent individuals or segments of the organization from experiencing embarrassment or threat.

And the PowerPoint presentation is one of the most effective organisational defensive routines around. That’s why it is so firmly entrenched in just about every corporation in the world.

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8 Responses to The PowerPoint plague

  1. Pingback: The PowerPoint plague - Rick - HR Space

  2. Richard J says:

    I wouldn’t take Sun’s statement at face value, necessarily. The other side of the story is that nobody in Sun wanted to touch Open Office’s own presentation software with a bargepole… The ‘not eating one’s own dogfood’ factor was equally a problem, or so I hear.

  3. jameshigham says:

    I saw stats that Powerpoint actually split attention and detracted from memory of the salient points of the presentation. Perhaps that’s the general idea?

  4. Dave Hughes says:

    Brilliant post. For me, a lot of times powerpoint is used to cover a lack of compelling insight – it’s throw enough data and images at people and they might find something they can latch on to.

  5. Ed says:

    There are several problems with PowerPoint. Not least that because its basics are easy enough for idiots to use, idiots use it.

    Like DTP software, it also gives false security to its users: because they can – in a literal sense – produce presentations (like they can produce magazines, brochures, flyers, and so on) without using a professional, they believe they have gained skills as well as means. Buying me a trowel wouldn’t make me a plasterer, but that’s not a transformation we can dress us as ’empowerment’.

    More insidiously, PowerPoint is useful for closing down debate. Keep all arguments to 24 point bullet lists, no nuances allowed. Powerpoint encourages us to simplify, not to clarify. You don’t present arguments or detailed cases with PowerPoint, you present slogans, soundbites and strap lines.

    Its’ presentations also quietly suggest ‘this person is authoritative: they are giving a presentation’. Actually, it means they can dress themselves, press buttons, and talk while standing up: their ability with the rest is in the detail. But PowerPoint discourages detail and encourages its users to act and behave more like the dodgier end of the sales team.

    I’d love to believe technology is neutral, but with PowerPoint I find it increasingly hard not to believe the evil isn’t inherent.

  6. Rick,

    As I mentioned on my blog this morning, I don’t think PowerPoint is the issue so much as how people use it. It’s not uncommon for me to have 100-slide PowerPoint decks, but they look much more like something you’d see at an Apple Keynote than a typical boardroom.

    One sentence of text. Size 44 font. Sometimes no words at all – just a full-bleed picture. I use PowerPoint like a slide project. Visuals enhance my story, they don’t tell.

    Which leads me to my next question: Why do you hate the word “storyboard”? Used correctly, storyboarding is a critical part of developing a great presentation, whether or not you use slide software.


    PS: LOVE the phrase “PowerPoint Ranger.” I may steal that, too!

  7. Rick says:

    Chris, thanks for your comment. I hate “storyboard” because it has become just another flavour-of-the-month word for any old PowerPoint presentation. More often then not, the ‘storyboard’ doesn’t actually tell a story.

  8. Ahh… I’ve never heard it used that way.

    The PowerPoint is never the storyboard. The storyboard is what you create first – in analog – that helps guide what you create later.


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