PowerPoint the Application vs. the Application of PowerPoint

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Slightly off-topic for this blog, and a little dated, but worth sharing nonetheless.

During a discussion with a couple of my co-workers today, I made an observation about how my current company, as well as one of the major consulting firms we use, seem to really be in love with PowerPoint as the documentation/presentation/communication/general-purpose tool of choice. This prompted an immediate and emphatic response from one of those co-workers, who insisted that he “loved PowerPoint.” 

The exchange reminded me of the news last year that Katsuaki Watanabe, the President and CEO of Toyota, had decreed that employees stop using PowerPoint for the creation of documents. Garr Reynolds (aka, Presentation Zen…master), had a great take on the news. A couple of the highlights:

  • To be clear, Watanabe did not “ban PowerPoint use,” as was mis-circulated at the time
  • Watanabe did severely discourage the use of PowerPoint as a documentation tool — Reynolds calls these “slideuments” (slides + documents), which is a wickedly apt designation (and the core of this post)
  • “…visuals projected on a screen in support of a live talk are very different from material that is to be printed and read and/or analyzed.”

And, a longer excerpt that is also key:

…there is often no distinction made between documents (slideuments made in PowerPoint) and presentation slides prepared for projection. They are often interchangeable. Sounds efficient, right? And it would be funny if it was not so inefficient, wasteful, and unproductive. The slideuments produced in Japan make understanding and precision harder when printed, and when used for projected slides in a darkened conference room, they are the country’s number one cure for insomnia. 

This was fundamentally the distinction that I was trying to get my co-worker to understand…without much luck. He’s clearly got some PowerPoint chops — he kept pulling up different slides he had done that had intricate builds and snazzy palettes and templates. But, the slides he was most proud of were heavily laden with annotations and text — they were standalone, comprehensive pictorial representations of complex concepts or systems.

Once he let loose with, “The point of PowerPoint is not the retention of the information — it’s the ‘wow’ factor,” I admitted defeat.

The title of this post is really the gist of my thesis here: Powerpoint the application is not the same thing as the application of PowerPoint. All too often, we don’t make that distinction. As Reynolds puts it, “Slideware is not a method, it’s simply a kind of tool.”

Think of a sledgehammer. It’s a tool — an application, if you will. But, it can applied for vastly different purposes:

  • Used with a wedge to split firewood
  • Used to drive a metal fencepost into the ground
  • Used to prop open a door that keeps blowing shut

These are very different applications of the tool, and you would be clear as to what it was you were trying to accomplish when you hiked it over your shoulder and headed off to the task at hand.

It's not what the software does...
[Cartoon by Hugh MacLeod — see oodles more at gapingvoid.com]

The same holds true for PowerPoint. It has several different distinct possible uses…and it’s worth being clear as to which one you are tackling:

  • A live, in-person demonstration — think simple, minimalist visual backup that supports an engaging presenter without distracting from what he/she is saying; think Steve Jobs (and, if you’re not familiar, check out one of the Presentation Zen posts on that subject)
  • A live, online presentation via a webinar or web conferencing solution — this is a stickier wicket, in a lot of ways; it’s tempting to hedge against technology quirks by distributing the .ppt/.pptx file to all of the attendees via e-mail so they can simply pull up the deck and follow along, but this can be problematic, as the audience can then jump ahead and jump back. Generally, this sort of presentation is “the best alternative we have” when, ideally, you’d be doing a live, in-person demonstration. I would think this means the same minimalist approach described in the prior bullet would apply.
  • Documentation never intended to be presented — slideuments — these really are problematic and should be avoided. 

All too often, there is a blurring of all three of these: a live presentation for some people, while other people are participating remotely, and the “presenter” has distributed the presentation as a handout that has all of the detail that he/she is going to present. That leaves the participants cognitively vascillating between listening to the presenter’s words and reading through the detail in the presentation that is either being projected or is printed in front of them. It’s just not effective. Make the presentation a presentation. If there is supplemental detail or review material, put that in a document and distribute it separately — before, during, or after the presentation. Let the presentation be truly visual and let it support the concepts and information being presented, with an emphasis on the concepts

Aside: To bridge back to the topic of this site, I’ve even seen PowerPoint used as a poor man’s BI presentation tool: PowerPoint 2007 linked to Excel 2007, which was in turn linked to Access 2007, which was in turn hooked into a SQL Server database. On the one hand…<shudder>. On the other hand, when it came to a portable (once the link to Excel was removed), shareable report, it wasn’t half bad! (Our intent was for it to also be a prototype that we could iterate on quickly as we developed requirements for a true BI tool…but that didn’t pan out for other reasons.)

So, that’s my mini-rant. It’s a problem. A clear problem. But, not one that I intend to solve. If you’re interested in thinking more about the topic check out:

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  1. The problem with slidumentaries is not their particular purpose, but their usage.

    I’ve been successful using PowerPoint as a static reporting tool, where the slides contain the information to be documented and archived. I’ve never used these same slides for presentation purposes, but I’ve often extracted objects from the archival Ppt files to insert into presentations.

    The problem is when people don’t clearly think out the difference between archival and presentation slide decks, and use the first as if they are effective for the second purpose.

  2. Sometimes I resort to powerpoint as a documentation tool because it’s so much easier to integrate pictures and text into powerpoint than Word. isn’t it?

    But i agree that this is not why PPT was designed for.

  3. I use PowerPoint all the time – it’s perfect for the people I’m presenting some of this high-level, graphically friendly, trended data. Mostly because IMO it’s easier than formatting crap in Excel, I can print to PDF easily, and it’s just clean and consistent on each page.

    It’s not for everyone, and doing that BI linkage sounds silly, but to the “I just wanna know the high level month to month stuff” business partners, I think it’s perfect.

  4. Pingback Gilligan on Data by Tim Wilson » PowerPoint / Presentations / Data Visualization

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