[SCMP Column] Beauty of PowerPoints

October 07, 2017

Summoned to give a presentation last Monday at a conference in Kuala Lumpur on services trade, the organisers gave me a courageous and controversial command: no PowerPoints please.

At first, the idea was liberating. Just sit, and talk to the audience. Easy. Or was it? Suddenly you recall how efficiently a PowerPoint forces you to organise and structure your thoughts, to sequence them in a story, to manage your time, and to provide emphasis and reinforcement when it is most needed. Without it, I felt naked and alone. The command was not just controversial. It was counterproductive.

Much as we love to complain about powerpoints, the truth is that the technology is invaluable. It’s how we abuse the technology that sits at the root of that “Death by a thousand Bullet Points” experience that has numbed the mind at so many conferences and lectures over the years.

When Robert Gaskins and Dennis Austin at the Silicon Valley tech consultancy Forethought sold PowerPoint to Microsoft in 1987 for US$14m, I am sure they had no idea what a wonder they had created – and what a fortune they had signed away. Today, it is estimated that there are almost 350 PowerPoint presentations launched every second somewhere in the world – that’s about 30m a day. The software is installed on about 1.2bn computers worldwide.

Something that has become so ubiquitous in our lives, that has become so indispensable, cannot possibly be deserving of so much disdain. I tend to agree with Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at MIT and later Harvard, who claims: "Any general opposition to PowerPoint is just dumb... It's like denouncing lectures — before there were awful PowerPoint presentations, there were awful scripted lectures, unscripted lectures, slide shows, chalk talks, and so on.”

In the APEC Business Advisory Council two years ago our Peruvian Chair introduced a new rule: any PowerPoint presentation must be limited to five slides. The rule was well intended, but it has created a disaster. Presenters comply with the five slide rule by crushing four slides onto each page. Even seated on the front row and with a magnifying glass it has become impossible to read or make sense of what they are trying to show.

To rub salt in the wound, the presenters click, stab a laser pointer onto the screen, and say: “As you can see…” If I were not squinting so painfully, I would laugh.

As a presenter and as an audience at literally hundreds of conferences a year over several decades, I find the painful and repeated abuse of the technology quite astonishing. Why do so many people never learn?

First, it is possible that the presenter is rarely subject to other peoples’ appalling PowerPoints. Maybe it is a top boss who is too self-important or too busy to prepare his or her own presentation. The worst of these use “clicker-maids” – junior staff assigned to click from slide to slide as they talk, usually following a written script prepared by another junior staff. Things tend to get worse if this kind of presenter decides to handle the clicker him or herself. There will usually be minutes of air-flapping as slides first don’t move at all, and then move back instead of forwards, and then flip forward too fast without the presenter knowing how to go into reverse.

Then there is the presenter who is too lazy to “build” the page as he or she makes each point. Instead, dozens of bullet points, made up of hundreds of words, flash up all at once. As the audience struggles to digest what has just appeared on the screen, the presenter speaks to a script that at best begins elaborating the first bullet, but often follows a different thread altogether. I don’t know if this is just me, but while I am struggling to read the bullet text I seem to go deaf. And vice versa: if I try to concentrate on what the speaker is saying, I find myself floundering with the images on the screen. For a simple brain like mine, there is a simple solution. The speaker can bring up the bullets one at a time, and speak directly to each one. The bullet text can be very brief, because the elaboration can be made by the speaker. It puzzles me that this is not obvious.

As bad is the speaker who throws up a large number of bullet points is the one that speaks verbatim to every word on the screen. Why does he or she not realise that if we wanted to read the bullets along with him or her, then we could simply have picked up the slides and read them quietly to ourselves. We would not need the speaker to be there.

While charts and maps and tables can be invaluable, surely a speaker must realise that as soon as the slide pops up, no matter what the speaker is saying, instinct prompts the eyes of everyone in the audience to race around the data on the screen, searching for patterns or significance. If not simple, and if not carefully guided around the screen, data slides can fuse the brain. No wonder so many people in audiences nowadays spend entire presentations snapping photos of each data slide on their smartphone, to be digested and understood later.

Don’t get me wrong – some illustrations do magic. Anyone who has browsed the wonderful website “Information-is-beautiful.com” will know what I mean. Back in my journalistic days, our illustrators had to work to the “Five Second rule” – if a chart or table cannot be understood in five seconds, it is failing to do its job. And why, oh why, do presenters feel so addicted to cheezy “emoticon-type” illustrations. These are usually painful distractions and should largely be purged.

Truth is that PowerPoints used well can make good presenters great, and make their messages memorable. They imply preparation and provide structure which calms the nerves. When I am up there on the podium, they allow me to relax and do the most important thing of all – talk directly to all of those faces in the audience. By vetoing PowerPoints, my Kuala Lumpur organisers did me and the audience no favours at all.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own. 
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