Is PowerPoint Making Us Stupid?

11/15/2011 11:41 EST | Updated 01/15/2012 05:12 EST
Flickr: alice_c
How many mindless presentations have you sat through in business and life?

How many numbing slides have you had to endure of pie charts or ones littered with hundreds of words? How many times have you sat through a presentation in which the speaker was, literally, reading aloud the content on the slides that are right in front of you? How many times have you sat there while someone (poorly) read a speech while stammering behind a podium. The amount of content (both in traditional media and online) about death by PowerPoint is staggering.

Why do we -- as a society -- put up with up?

It's probably one of the last media frontiers that we need to take a serious look at, implode and re-invent. Yes, presentation software (be it, PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi or others) are simply tools to help a message get communicated, but it's gone beyond that to the point where the presentation software is the message... and not the true message (it would make Marshall McLuhan cry). In the recently published Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson, Jobs discusses how he re-invented Apple during the iMac phase by abolishing the use of presentation software in meetings. He felt that people were relying on the creation and presentation of a slide deck instead of actually thinking about the business problem and how to solve it. On page 337 of the telling biography, Jobs says, "People who know what they're talking about don't need PowerPoint."

It's the content, stupid.

It seems obvious enough, but the idea that a presentation is only as good as the content being presented has become a lost art. It's so fundamental (and obvious), but it's true. Ultimately, people use bullet points because they're worried they may forget something (which means, they don't know their content well enough) or they use fancy charts (which means that they can't explain something simply enough without a visualization) or they use fancy images or video (because it acts as a diversion to the fact that their own content is not as compelling).

There's one simple and easy way to create and give a great presentation...

Know your content (inside and out). If you don't, ask yourself this: "Should I really be presenting this material as a subject matter expert if I, myself, truly don't know it and have to hide behind bullet points or bar graphs?" Here's the thing: amazing images, hilarious videos, powerful infographics, bullet points and bar graphs are all incredible components to integrate into any presentation so long as the presentation can be done -- 100 per cent in its entirety -- without them. Think about some of the best presentations you have seen to date. Most of them used some form of multimedia but all of that media was a bonus. It acted as a vessel to simply push the speaker's message out there in a brighter and more powerful fashion.

The problem is that many presenters feel that the presentation is the presentation. It isn't.

The presentation begins (and ends) with the content and how the presenter delivers it. You don't have to ditch PowerPoint, but you don't need it. If you can augment your presentation by sprinkling it in, by all means... go for it. If software, audio visual, the type of microphone, etc... dictates how your presentation will be perceived, you need to return to the roots of what you're presenting and why you're presenting it, in the first place. Here's an easy way to think about it...

The three C's of a great presentation:

  1. Content. What am I being asked to present? What is the story here? How can I tell it in a simple way? How can I create a simple story that pulls it all together?
  2. Compelling. How well do I know my content? How well am I using my body language and words to deliver my content? What else can I do to make my presentation both memorable and actionable? How well have I practices this material be compelling in my delivery?
  3. Compassion. How can I get people to emotionally connect to me? How candid am I being with the audience? How much do I care about the audience? How much do I care about the content? How much emotion can I deliver?

Great presentations don't happen by accident. 

People forget that the best presentations are also a performance. They are art. The best presenters (like the best actors, artists and musicians) commit to the practice, study and performance of presentations. It's not an easy art to master (it takes years for some...with proper coaching, mentoring and instruction). Steve Jobs didn't wander out on to a stage and hope for the best (and if not, rely on his PowerPoint slides to deliver the message). He worked obsessively on everything from the core message to how the lighting in the room was set. He felt that those who didn't put the time and effort into this were bozos (granted, he felt that most people were bozos). Steve Jobs was a master presenter, and you can be too if you're willing to focus on the content and step away from the PowerPoint.

What presentations tips would you add?

Mitch Joel is president of Twist Image -- an award-winning digital marketing agency. HIs first book, Six Pixels of Separation, named after his highly-successful blog and podcast of the same name is a business and marketing bestseller.