Does Powerpoint make us stupid?

That’s the assertion of General James Mattis of the US Marine Corps, according to The Times (Wed 28 April 2010).

In a fascinating article by Tom Coghlan (Defence Correspondent), the General’s frustration with PPT is echoed by the current Commander of US Forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. The Commander was presented with this extraordinary slide at a recent security briefing in Kabul, and remarked, “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.” In an attempt to explain the security, economic and political conditions in Afghanistan, his advisors had prepared a PPT of such complexity that the general (and probably everyone else) suffered from mental overload.

Not surprisingly, this slide is doing the rounds on the internet, but it’s really just an extreme version of things we frequently see in the business world. It seems that presenters feel they have to pack in sufficient facts, figures and arrows to give the audience value for money. But the truth is this simply cheats the audience. They experience mental shutdown and fail to take anything in.

Be guided by the ‘less is more’ principle. In a 10-20 minute presentation, aim to deliver perhaps THREE key points – but deliver them really, really well. People respond well to stories – base your talk around stories. That’s not just telling anecdotes (although this can be very powerful) – we should think structure (beginning, middle and end).

ONE

Set the scene (context, introduce the main characters, explain the situation they’re in, what the problem is).

TWO

The meat in the middle. Explore the issue further. Use some images, stories, facts and figures to deliver insights and understanding. This establishes your credibility with the audience.

THREE

The resolution, the destination, the place you want to leave your audience in at the end. You’ve changed the way they think about something, they FEEL differently about the situation, they’re in a different place than they were at the start of your talk. They’re keen to take action as soon as they leave the room.

Powerpoint CAN enhance your message and help you achieve your aim. But too often it distracts the audience and hinders their ability to reach the destination you had in mind for them. It’s often little more than a crutch for a presenter. It’s something to hide behind and the presenter employs fancy animation and a surfeit of data in a misguided attempt to amaze the audience and give value for money. But it simply leaves them bemused and short-changed.

Put things in this order of priority:

The Messenger…the Message…the Medium

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