I read with a mixture of shock and smug satisfaction the recent New York Times story in which a Marine Corps general said “PowerPoint makes us stupid.” It turns out the popular presentation format has been messing up American war strategists just like it has confounded corporate planners.
Griping about PowerPoint isn’t news. Edward Tufte has done it constructively and authoritatively for years. We’ve all had to deal with it: I’ve struggled with clients who would only consider proposals if they were presented in the format, and then sat with them for hours as we edited individual bullets to make each slide perfect. I’m also old enough to remember the utter hassle of getting photographic slides made, and how marvelous the world became when PowerPoint bestowed upon us the gift of last minute changes.
It was a mixed blessing, though. At best.
Leave it to a military type to clarify the fundamental problem: “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” said a top general in Iraq. Other officers point out that PowerPoint stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making. The Times article featured a graphic purportedly showing America’s Afghanistan strategy, upon which the top NATO commander said, “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”
This sums up my feelings about the vast majority of the brand and marketing strategy meetings in which I’ve ever participated.
You've been in those rooms...hushed darkness illuminated by a giant screen filled with wondrous words and images. Things make sense. The pieces fit together. Processes are obvious. Some slides are overly complex but a few bulleted points make it all better. The world seems so simple during a PowerPoint presentation, and that confidence usually lasts after the meeting for somewhere between a nanosecond and a few hours, tops, because:
- Bulleted phrases don’t express complete or necessarily consecutive thoughts
- Labeled boxes confuse the structure and functions of groups of people or things
- Lines aren’t causative or reliable, so they don’t really “connect” anything
I’d go as far to suggest that some or most of the dumbest ideas in business over the past 20 years probably looked the smartest in PowerPoint presentations. Maybe there should be a discount against plan validity when using the format, or perhaps it could be a litmus test for vetting bad ideas (i.e. if it really works in PowerPoint we’ve probably got a problem)?
It has certainly been a boon and curse to the branding and marketing world.
Consultants have made beaucoup dollars producing PowerPoint as their sole work output. Gurus love the format because it’s really easy to say nothing absolutely brilliantly: you can sign-up for a few different webinars each day that will teach you about how talking is the same as selling, or why your company needs to follow the 10 rules for creating a Twitter name, and these time-wasters are utterly reliant on beautiful and/or serious-seeming slide presentations. Most marketing strategy proposals are equally inane, as PowerPoint isn’t a planning tool any more than it’s a meeting facilitator.
And that’s the curse. People write to the presentation format, and then audiences witness it. Think of the endless hours people have spent trying and failing to translate the genius clarity of slides into real actions (let alone relating said behavior back to the absolutes of the deck). I’m not bemoaning its leveling of context and nuance into 2D flatness, which it surely does, but rather echoing the general’s complaint that it creates the illusions of understanding and control where no such capabilities exist.
PowerPoint is a slide-making program, nothing more. Using it for anything more is like making your life decisions based on what fits the format of your calendar. We marketers need better tools with which to practice our trade...tools that acknowledge that:
- Meetings are best run by people and conducted through conversation, not by focusing audience eyeballs on a screen
- Proposals are probably real-life and real-time experiences backed-up with a page on which prices are listed
- Monitoring and adapting rely on far more than numbers and levers, yet the connection from that data to subsequent action is anything but obvious
World War II was fought and won without the aid of PowerPoint, just like the Apollo moon program was executed sans its able assistance. The pyramids and transcontinental railroad were built. Renaissance monarchies slaughtered one another's armies and sent their sailing ships around the world. You get the idea. Hundreds of generations of people did smart things without it.
So why do we let it make us so stupid?