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If PowerPoint Were a PowerSaw, Most Presenters Would Be Missing Fingers


By Mark Kretschmar

“PowerPoint makes us stupid.” That astute observation is from our current Secretary of Defense, James Mattis. As a result of this view, PowerPoint has been banned from many military conference rooms. Some academic institutions and corporations are following suit (Psychology Today).

They’re right – essentially. But PowerPoint itself is not the problem – exactly. Displays of appropriate visual support are powerful in their ability to drive meaning and retention.

The User, Not The Tool

It’s not PowerPoint; it’s how presenters are using PowerPoint that leads to “stupid-making.” A primary problem is the infamous bulleted list. What an evil, mind-numbing contraption it is. A list of words we are unsure if we are supposed to read or continue listening to the speaker (it’s impossible to do both). We usually ignore them making them of no value. Or we read them and miss what the speaker is saying making them of negative value. Or the speaker reads them to us making them of great value for insomniacs.

The Fault is in the De-fault

Bulleted lists show no relationships between the words/concepts presented, and that’s where the visual value would be. Where PowerPoint is to blame is in defaulting to bullets. The typical slide offers a content box with six content-type icons in the middle. Five of these are good selections. One of these is a bulleted list. If you don’t click one of them, and most don’t, the content box assumes you want a bulleted list so you make one.

Oops. There Goes A Finger

Defaulting to bulleted lists is the equivalent of a power saw having this instruction: “Place your free hand in the path of the saw blade – see appendix for other options.” Why default to the worst possible option? If it must default, I’d go with SmartArt.

Save Your Fingers – Save Your Audience

Next time you create a slide, don’t click in the box and start typing your words. Click the SmartArt icon:

Here are myriad options for showing words/concepts with visual indication of the relationships between them: Lists, hierarchies, cycles, processes and more. It’s pretty easy and forces you to encapsulate your concept/thought in 2-3 words per item rather than visually deadly sentences.

Of course, there are volumes more to say about making a really effective slide deck (if one is even necessary, and don’t assume that it is). But if you start by simply using SmartArt rather than bullets, you may save the IQ of your audience and your reputation as a presenter.

None of this matters if you don’t properly interact with the slide.

To increase your value by bringing your communication skills up to match your technical skills, contact Mark at mark@engineerspeak.com or 651-728-0352 and check out the helpful, free content on engineerspeak.com.