No matter what your line of work, it’s only getting harder to avoid death by PowerPoint. Since Microsoft launched the slide show program 22 years ago, it’s been installed on no fewer than 1 billion computers; an estimated 350 PowerPoint presentations are given each second across the globe; the software’s users continue to prove that no field of human endeavor can defy its facility for reducing complexity and nuance to bullet points and big ideas to tacky clip art. On June 18, the Iranian government made the case for its highly contested nuclear program to world leaders with a 47-slide deck. (Sample slide: “In the Name of ALLAH, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful, Why Enrichment is an Inalienable and Chartered Right under the NPT?”) A few weeks later, scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) announced the momentous discovery of the Higgs boson, or “God particle,” using 52 PowerPoint slides in the Comic Sans font that inspired more mockery than awe. Two years back, the New York Knicks tried to woo LeBron James with a PowerPoint pitch, which may explain why James won his first NBA championship in Miami.
As with anything so ubiquitous and relied upon, PowerPoint has bred its share of contempt. Plug the name into Twitter and you’ll see workers bashing the soporific software in Korean, Arabic, Spanish, and English as each region starts its business day. Part of this venting may stem from a lack of credible competition: PowerPoint’s share of the presentation software market remains 95 percent, eclipsing relative newcomers Apple Keynote, Google Presentation, Prezi, and SlideRocket, according to Meinald Thielsch, whose study of PowerPoint appears in the May 2012 edition of the journal Technical Communication. Microsoft’s other ubiquitous products, such as Word and Excel, don’t draw the same widescale ire. As PowerPoint’s sole function—unlike word processing and arithmetic—is grounded in visual arts, its slides do more harm than good. They bore audiences with amateurish, antiquated animation and typefaces and distract speakers from focusing on the underlying structure of their creators’ speeches. It’s a wonder that today’s groundswell of PowerPoint refuseniks has taken so long to emerge.
“The best speakers at any corporate level today grip an audience by telling a story and showing some slides to support that,” says Thielsch. The boldest among them do away with slides entirely.
The problem, say communication experts, is that PowerPoint has gone from being an aid to a crutch. “If you have a presentation due, you say to yourself, ‘I’ll just do it like my boss,’ ” says Joel Ingersoll, a manager at Minneapolis database firm Lorton Data. “ ‘I’ll start vomiting information I found on my hard drive until I hit, oh, about 20 slides, and then I’ll wing the talking-to-people part.’ ” Statistics support Ingersoll’s observations: Thielsch found that 36 percent of the preparation time for the average proposal was consumed by design and animation work by people without formal graphics training. “People rely on the graphics and stilted effects [that come with] these programs because they think they plump out an otherwise poorly told story,” says Jonah Sachs, creative director of the communications firm Free Range Studios. For Sachs, author of Winning the Story Wars, storytelling isn’t about opening your talk with a funny anecdote about your uncle’s prizewinning sturgeon. It’s about building a message using a powerful story line with a conflict and a resolution. “A story takes all the senseless data that the world provides and turns it into something meaningful,” he says.
That advice is easier to apply to a high-profile, Steve Jobs–style keynote than to the types of presentations that move business forward in the trenches. But accountants need stories, too, argues Nancy Duarte, whose eponymous firm creates corporate slide decks: “Even if you’re a middle manager delivering financials to your department in slides, you’re telling a story. A manager is constantly trying to persuade, contrasting where their team is today vs. where they want them to be.”
Starting a presentation with a story in mind also implies that you’re working hard to keep the audience involved. “Everyone is sick of the one-way diatribe,” says Duarte. “Visual conversations are where things are headed.” She created the graphics for Al Gore’s presentations on climate change, featured in the Oscar-winning 2007 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, and now works for the TED conference organizers to train its speakers. She describes her most recent corporate projects as “immersive” and “participatory.” In one, the senior managers of a major information technology firm watched visuals projected on the floor while they engaged in polls via hundreds of customized iPads. In another example, an executive came to her looking for a killer PowerPoint, but instead she trained him for days to tell his story using only a whiteboard. Many of the top presentation gurus advocate judiciously limiting the role of PowerPoint. “Pin up butcher paper on the walls, draw a map of your thinking, and hand that out. There are endless techniques that are more appropriate than PowerPoint,” says Keith Yamashita, founder of communications firm SYPartners.
If only by its novelty, ditching PowerPoint makes a strong impression, but that’s easier said than done. Advertising executive Amelia Torode of London-based firm Chime Communications describes her terror when, in early July, she spoke without slideware for the first time in her 15-year career. She had to step onstage unassisted. “It felt unplugged—no guitar fuzz, no backup singers, just me,” says Torode. “I felt naked up there.”
Jason Jones, who presents to clients at least twice a day for network storage company EMC, knows the feeling. Though he’s never gone Full Monty, he’s learned to keep his slideware to a minimum. He changed his attitude on a roasting hot day in Boston in 2008 on a job for a former employer. The presentation had not started well. Jones had just flown up from Charlotte and was locked in a stuffy room with a dozen potential clients. According to former colleague and fellow sales engineer Dave Eagle, the group consisted of mostly buttoned-up “New Englandy” types, and Jones’s Southern accent and physically outsized presence clashed with the tenor of the gathering. Jones was supposed to deliver a monster slide show of two hours.
As Eagle fiddled with the digital projector, his colleague suddenly veered off script. “All right, I got two presentations for y’all, one where I throw a bunch of crap on the wall, and one where I just tell y’all what I think y’oughta do.”
Jones went on to give a radically shortened shtick and lead a conversation about the pros and cons of various products. In the end, he won the account.
Today, Jones refuses to deliver the standard-issue PowerPoint developed by his current employer. “I eat based on what gets sold,” he says. “A business audience doesn’t care about the how, they care about the why.” Instead, Jones keeps his slide deck short, focused, and written for the specific client. He even hands out a small chrome bell in his opening gambit. If anyone gets bored during the talk, he tells them to ring the bell. “Once in a while,” he says, “People still ring it—yes they do!”