Death by PowerPoint

One of the “fun” things about working in an IT office environment is how often you have to sit through some agonising over-long pointless presentation that sucks the very life-force out of you.  It has been said that one should never ascribe to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity but I am starting to suspect their is some sort of secret management cabal that meets in dark caves to plot ways to torture us poor workers.  The Society for Cruel and Unusual Management perhaps?  And its graduates are given the title of official Developer of Really Odious Presentations.

The weapon of choice for these SCUMDROPs is without doubt Microsoft’s PowerPoint.  If you’ve never experienced someone attempting to inflict Death by PowerPoint, count yourself lucky.  I have heard people say that this isn’t the fault of PowerPoint, it’s the fault of the presenters.  Yeah, right – guns don’t kill people, people kill people.  It’s just that someone with lots of guns has a head start on killing lots of people and these SCUMDROPs wouldn’t be half as dangerous without PowerPoint in their arsenal.

You get over 7 million hits on Google for Death by PowerPoint but my favourite online resource for showing the horrible potential of PowerPoint to destroy a presentation was done by Peter Norvig.  He has constructed a PowerPoint version of one of the most famous speeches in modern history, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  This devilspawn software effortlessly reduces one of the most powerful pieces of oratory ever into meaningless drivel with dot points and charts.  Much like every business presentation I’ve ever seen.  Apart from the fact the presentations in question were probably never going to be great oratory in the first place.

Recently I had the misfortune of being subjected to one of the worst excesses in Death by PowerPoint I can imagine.  I was working for a company that was looking to acquire an ERP system to run the finances and logistics for their nation-wide business.  This is a fairly big ticket purchase so there were a lot of vendors vying for the contract.  Included in the contenders was one of the biggest international players in this field (I won’t mention them by name but they’re known by the acronym of their German name which rhymes, appropriately enough, with CRAP)

Like all of the vendors they were allocated one hour to make their initial pitch.  They were told this ahead of time: “You have ONE HOUR to explain your product to us.”  Their presentation was obviously the company’s standard one and it involved 85 PowerPoint slides.  85!  What made it worse was nearly all of them were animated, often involving sound and ALL of them were too complicated to understand by simply looking at them.  And they barrelled through them in less than 60 minutes.   More than a slide a minute when it would have taken a minute just to read the words that were on each slide.

So the audience were barraged with an hour of whooshing noises, flying text and blinking lights that left us all exhausted and more confused than when we started.  It absolutely boggles my mind that when several million dollars are at stake, a supposedly world-leading company would not take the time to put together a presentation that would actually be meaningful to a potential customer.  Maybe I’m giving the presenters in question too much credit but they could not possibly have though any audience was going to enjoy being rushed through so many slides in an hour.  The real problem is that there were too many slides for any length of time and they were far too complicated but their crimes was made exponentially worse by cramming it all into an hour.

Any rational person would say that this is only going to end badly for the company in question.  The only conclusion I could draw (besides the possibility that the presenters were clinically insane) is that they thought they could overwhelm us with the sheer volume of their presentation.  Then when we were too weak and dazed to struggle they could force us to sign a contract.  Needless to say, they shot themselves in the head at this meeting and we never spoke to them again.  I was going to say they shot themselves in the foot but seriously, these guys had the barrel in their mouth when they pulled the trigger.

If anyone can explain to me how travesties like this continue to happen in the corporate world I’d really like to hear your thoughts.  Every available piece of literature says DON’T DO THIS and yet it continues to happen.  I can almost forgive a clueless middle manager who is simply committing a sin of ignorance but this was from a supposedly world-leading IT company!  I would be wishing for this company to collapse under its own weight but they’re so bloated their collapse would form a black hole that would destroy us all.

There are a million guides out there to help you avoid committing truly horrible crimes against humanity with PowerPoint.  For god’s sake, do everyone a favour and read some of them before your next presentation.  If you think I’m exaggerating you haven’t seen how bad things can get.  I’m sure in the deepest, darkest pits of Gitmo there are gathered the world’s most evil SCUMDROPs who work in teams to force detainees to watch 3 hour PowerPoint presentations.  And each slide features animated text, charts and red writing on black backgrounds.

One thing you’ll probably find if you read a few different guides is that they will contradict each other in places.  It’s more art than science and you’ll have to decide for yourself who’s opinion you agree with.  Whichever guide you choose, remember the following three points over everything else – the rest is just detail:

PowerPoint is no good for explaining complex concepts: You can use it to illustrate or support points but you can’t use it to teach.  You have to be working closely with your subjects to teach anything complex or worthwhile – you can’t do it with words on a screen.

PowerPoint is no good for words:  A picture paints a thousand words but a thousand words will be the PowerPoint presentation from hell.  If you think you need to provide your audience with lots of words then POWERPOINT IS THE WRONG TOOL!  Don’t use it just because it exists, use the appropriate medium.  The printed word has served humanity well for centuries, try going with that.

PowerPoint is no good for inspiring an audience:  It can work with basic reporting of data, it can reinforce or support points but it simply isn’t inspiring.  A good speaker can inspire an audience but not with PowerPoint.  You can’t reach out to an audience with PowerPoint, it actually distances you from them, it gets in the way.

In short: PowerPoint – just say no.  Do it for the children.  Won’t somebody please think of the children?  And if that doesn’t sway you, remember this: guns don’t kill people, people who have been forced to sit through one too many truly horrible PowerPoint presentations kill people.  And the presenter is usually the first victim.

28 Comments

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28 responses to “Death by PowerPoint

  1. Rick - a 'merican'

    Amen. Amen.

  2. Pingback: PowerPoint Death « ykud

  3. You need to come to my company. Our PowerPoint presentation ROCK! No templates are ever used and no they are not full of words. They do inspire, they do get the point across, they do explain. But better, because the bar was set high by a few people other people using PowerPoint for their presentations in our company know what the company is used to and would never give one of those lame templated bullet point presentations.

  4. I once made a PP presentation for an important university project, and handed it over to my second in command to add the final information. He mailed it back at 5 in the morning having worked all night (like a good second in command should).

    However…he did NOT add his extra data, but he DID spend thoses hours adding text animations and sound fx to EVERY fucking page, and NO 2 PAGES WERE ALIKE!

    So I spent 2 hours more removing his crap so it could be viewed by humans. I still dream about torturing that guy in PP hell. “And THIS table shows how much you will suffer…”

    And regarding the previous comment by gman: “Our PowerPoint presentation ROCK!” This guy is a danger to himself and others and should be neutralised by all means neccessary.

  5. Hey Rick, nice to hear from you again. Sounds like you’ve been there and done that.

    gman: I’ll take your word for it – it sounds like people are the strength where you work. When PP is a supporting tool it can be fine, when it’s regarded as the centrepiece, youre in trouble

    paddyk: a familiar nightmare. and don’t be too hard on gman, he’s still idealistic, not a bitter old bugger like us🙂

  6. Former COBOL Programmer

    Not that it’s true and all companies, or at rhymes-with-CRAP, but from what I’ve seen, people spend an inordinate amount of time working on PowerPoint presentations because they don’t have anything better to do, but the still have to account for 8 hrs/day; 40 hrs/week.

    This is the one thing I don’t understand about U.S. corporations. I’m classified as an “exempt” employee, meaning I don’t get paid for overtime. On the one hand, if I have to work longer to finish a task, then it’s up to me to get int done. On the other hand, if the there’s no work for me to do, I can’t leave early to spend time with my kids or run some errands, I have to fill the day with “busy work” to fill out 8 hours. In this regard PowerPoint is a godsend; one can easily kill 3-4 hours working on fonts, colors and (squeal) animations😉

  7. Salamaat,
    hahahaha…okay i need to stop.

    We have fancy templates in my company and we have sat through TOO many atrocious pp’s.

    I love that PP HELL! hahahah….

    \But seriously if you took PP’s from managers; what else would they do with their time?

  8. how true! you’re like a genius! my thoughts but penned to perfection woot!

  9. I think I will be able to use PP even in my death bed…THAT proves how MANY times i have had to bear the torture of making presentations and c-ordinating other people’s works into my slides. Either decrease the amt of information that u need to impart or PLEASE PLEASE FOR GOD’s SAKE INCREASE the presentation time!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Duh.

  10. Keep in mind that it is not just the presentation that can kill you, but also the content. The following was a bullet point from a presentation I attended.

    Review current plans and methodologies to help refine vision on ways process can be improved

    huh?

    Reads my thoughts about this here:
    http://duckbrown.wordpress.com/2006/07/21/buzz-word-overkill/

  11. Margherite

    Hey, keep watching that stuff and you too can earn a PP badge/patch. You need 1000 hours of U.S. Army PP to qualify .

    http://www.nbc-links.com/powerpoint.html

  12. Ed

    You forgot to mention the practice of handing out printed copies of the slides (3 slides per page) so victims, I mean audience members, can take notes and have a permanent record. It’s kind of fun to look at them the next day and try to figure out what the slide or the presentation was about.

    I understand that PP presentations are now virtually required for briefings in the US Army. This does not make me feel more secure.

  13. I was thinking today about my use of PPT and was questioning its involvement in my work. I’m a teacher and was delivering a PPT to a class when I put a question up on the screen which had no answers. I said that Icouldn’t think of any and was therefore posing the question to the calss to see what their thoughts were. One pupil says ‘But don’t you just get all this stuff out of a textbook?’

    To an extent the pupil was right, the majority of content does come from a textbook, but I do try and include my own thoughts and ideas.

    However, it made me think ‘Am I really teaching these kids, or am I just displaying key points from the textbook on a pretty PPT slide for them to copy down?’ Surely any monkey could do this, I’m a professional, I should be thinking of ways to deliver material to pupils that non-professionals wouldn’t think of. Anyone can get pupils to take notes.

    Yes, PPT can be a useful tool, but is it eroding my teaching because of the apparent convenience it provides? I think maybe so.

  14. We don’t call them PowerPoint Presentations. They are known, simply as “Decks”. They actually work quite well. From hating Powerpoint with a passion I now find it far more useful for presenting ideas than MsWord. And I never ever use those horrible templates.

  15. We have seen corporations lean on Powerpoint and its templating so much that the company loses its creative juice. Its not the tool itself – its the lack of understanding of how to present. Read this post on the 10 best presentations. A great powerpoint from Guy Kawasaki who is brilliant in his methodology for a good slide show. He uses the 10/20/30 rule. 10 slides, 20 minutes and 30 point type on screen for a business pitch.

    http://www.knowhr.com/blog/2006/08/21/top-10-best-presentations-ever/

  16. Power point is only a tool. Its like a stick to a chimp. My take is that it is more a case of “stupid in, stupid out” than anything. Somebody got the “Ds” in college and its more or less likely that the majority of us has sat through presentations. Like it or not, its here to stay.

  17. ripismoney

    Once upon a time at my school… Every single teacher was swept off their feet and found PowerPoint to be a valuable life skill. Yeah. I really need to know how to use bullet noises for my future presentations.

  18. and ofcourse, its not the presentation as much as the presenter?
    i’ve used powerpoint quite effectively at times but what makes the presentation is Me, not the slides. i’ve used the same principle with my dad when has to do presentations at school, we’re both keen speakers so it works out.

    the other useful way of using powerpoint is if you’re doing a test/quiz and the audience has a handout of it. also auseful way to show ppl how to fill things in🙂

  19. Pingback: Powerpoint « The title can be changed later, right?

  20. Do you remember what we had before PowerPoint, bad slide presentations or worse presentations with no graphics?

    Bad presentations are bad presentations and PowerPoint does not cure that problem nor does it make them worse.

    As the Budishs say, “Do not confuse the finger with the Moon that it points toward”.

  21. I attended a ‘training the trainer’ course where the 1st presentation lasted 2 and a half hours and consisted of over 100 overheads. As Roland says, its not the technology that is the problem, its the trainer.

    I use Powerpoint all the time but I get concerned if it gets above 5 slides and I never use sound effects or moving graphics. Sometimes I will put a relevant photo or diagram into a slide.

    Keep to the key points – thats my advice

  22. [I use OpenOffice.org Impress, which is still presentation software, although somewhat less sophisticated. Also, less laden with feature bloat, such as complex animations and sound effects. I state this up front because I don’t want any misinterpretation of the following statement to be either a defense of or a compliment to PowerPoint.]

    Even a Stradivarius sounds horrible in most people’s hands. But when you encounter someone using it well, the results are amazing.

  23. I have spent so much time in my consulting career on Presentations- What the hell I can say I know ppt’s better than how much I know about my wife!. Crazy if u think how our lives are tangled around one software.

  24. With a few shades of difference, I think we share a common view – PP isn’t evil by definition but it’s capable of perpetrating great evil when used wrongly. It’s simply a tool and and tool can be used well or poorly. A hammer and chisel can be used to create Michelangelo’s “David” but in unskilled hands, a hammer and chisel is more likely to inflict a debilitating injury.

    For me, the danger rises when the presentation is driven by the tool rather than the tool being used to enhance a presentation. “To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

  25. Death by PowerPoint is a cousin to the sort of things you see when someone fires up a child’s desktop publishing app like Publisher for the first time, or when Nutscrape’s first WYSIWYG editors for HTML started to appear. People assume that because all the features are there that they HAVE to use them.

    Some folks have probably seen this already but I’ll mention it just in case:
    http://www.beyondbullets.com/

  26. Pingback: World changing presentations « Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub

  27. Pingback: David Rodgers » Blog Archive » Please Stop Giving Crappy Presentations

  28. Pingback: freniche.com » Death by Powerpoint

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