PowerPoint is terrible, not because it’s tedious or needlessly limiting—although it is—but because it is a productivity sink, asks people to focus on the wrong things, and encourages summary over original thought, marketing over honest communication, and (kitschy) style over substance.
These observations were generally inspired by a decade in the aerospace industry, but in particular by a half-hour telecon utterly co-opted by PowerPoint. Ostensibly, the the call was an opportunity to do a dry-run and review of a set of charts for another meeting. This in and of itself is a dubious way to spend time (the pre-meeting meeting), but things quickly devolved to a room of highly compensated engineers re-wording bullet points, re-ordering them on charts, and commenting on the capitalization conventions used in the slide titles.
The experience provoked questions about how things went wrong, presented with willful irony as a set of bullet points:
- When did our industry lose the ability for more than two people to have a conversation without the aid of PowerPoint?
- Why did the chart pack replace the document as an acceptable way to document a trade study or analysis?
- When did people seemingly lose the ability to form complete sentences, and how did the take-away box become a proxy for actually having a point?
According to Edward Tufte’s Visual Explanations this practice goes back at least as far as Challenger, which pre-dates PowerPoint; however, PowerPoint’s curse is it’s ability to amplify laziness by reducing the effort necessary to create charts, turning them into the sine qua non of meetings. In the Challenger days, viewfoil construction (as told by those who were there) was an arduous process and thus typically reserved for high-profile events. Bad habits that were previously tempered by the tediousness of manually constructing transparencies now have ubiquitous access to a tool that makes chart building easy. Unfortunately, not everything that is easy is worthwhile, and most of the charts I see are really make-work that acts as a diversion from the challenging tasks we should be working on.
- Not sure the best way to structure the new program?
Connect some boxes with a line, add a platitudinous mission statement, and have a meeting!
- Believe you’ve found a spec with a missing requirement or know of how to improve a badly written one?
Paste the old wording from the spec into a chart and put your new wording right next to it (all ready to paste back into the spec)!
- Need to review last months control account data?
Extract the data from the earned-value tool into Excel and then take screen captures to paste into PowerPoint! Why use one tool when we can manually pipe the data between three?
PowerPoint is almost never the final resting place for information with long-term value, yet it seems that all information is destined to pass through it at some point: copy-paste in, then copy-paste out.
But worse than a pass through is when charts are used as a tool for summary. A report is turned into a 100-chart brief of a report, which is turned into a 20-chart summary of the brief, of which 16-charts are moved to backup. Like a copy of a copy of a copy, clarity is lost with each iteration; the content is distilled out until there’s nothing left but bromides.
All enabled by the cognitive style of PowerPoint: huge fonts, enormous margin-filling logos, needless hierarchy, and the arbitrary balkanization of content.1 Imagine if charts had been available to Lincoln at Gettysburg, and see how they were used prior to the Columbia disaster to unintentionally obfuscate critical engineering data from decision makers.
So here’s my humble suggestion: next time you’re thinking about making a PowerPoint chart, ask yourself if there is another — any other — way that the same information could be communicated?
Do you build charts for your four-person staff meeting? Would it really be less productive if you just sat around a table to disseminate news and gather status? How much pre-meeting time would you save by not building charts and how much in-meeting time would you save not having to log on and fire up the projector? Ad hoc, informal meetings almost never need PowerPoint.
Do you send status to your manager as a four-layered nest of bullet points? Try three full sentences that would make your homeroom teacher proud.
Are you building a schedule in PowerPoint using tiny triangles and boxes? Perhaps an actual schedule would make more sense.
Almost by definition, charts need briefers to be understood, so even when provided before the meeting no one can really prepare until they hear the pitch, which is typically a person slogging through them one-by-one vainly trying not to get bogged down in minutia while promising the answer to all questions is, “Coming up in a couple charts.”
What if the topic was written out in plain English and distributed prior to the meeting — like in a document or memo. Then instead of spending your precious time together explaining everything for the first time (or maybe the second or third with dry-runs), the time can be used to answer questions about what was unclear and have an actual conversation about what is contentious. It’s amazing how much easier it is to write than make charts and how much quicker it is to read than be talked at.
If I’m going to drink from a fire hose I’d rather do it with my eyes than my ears; let’s save our time together for productive, engaging, conversation.
Ground Rules and Assumptions — 3 of 5 ↩