Three Questions Concerning PowerPoint

Christopher Witt —  March 17, 2015

about PowerPointI’m the author of Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint (Crown Business), so you might think I’m always and everywhere opposed to its use.

I’d say I’m critical of it, but not opposed to it. Many of my clients–subject matter experts of all stripes–use PowerPoint, and they should.

But these days it’s assumed, at least in the business world, that everyone should use PowerPoint every time they give a presentation. And that’s a mistake.

I begin with the assumption that PowerPoint is a tool for organizing, formatting, and projecting information visually.

If that’s the case–you can disagree with me–then there are three questions you can and should ask about it.

1. Is PowerPoint a good tool?

Does it make organizing, formatting, and projecting information easy, efficient, and effective?

Opinions vary.

Some people swear by it. They couldn’t imagine creating or delivery a presentation without using PowerPoint.

The author of 7 Reasons Why PowerPoint Doesn’t Suck is one such person. (He’s not a raving fan, mind you, or he would have titled his post “7 Reasons Why PowerPoint Rocks.”)

Some people curse it.

Edward Tufte is the best known opponent. The title of his article, PowerPoint Is Evil, says it all.

I’m somewhere in between the two extremes.

For a software program that has been around so long and made Microsoft so much money, I would expect it to be exceptional. I would want its graphics capabilities and its templates to be stunning. I would like to trust its reliability with any computer or screen I used. But it isn’t exceptional, stunning, or utterly reliable.

I think PowerPoint–as a tool–is adequate, maybe a little bit better than adequate. How would you rate it as a tool for ease of use, for sophistication, for versatility, for reliability?

2. Is PowerPoint a well-used tool?

I’ve seen some amazing PowerPoint presentations. Crisp, clear, compelling. Professional in every way. You probably have, too. But I think you’d have to admit that they are the exception.

Most PowerPoint presentations–the type given every day (many times a day) in most businesses–are, well, less than amazing.

The slides are too often confusing and boring. The overall message too frequently lacks a clear and compelling unity. And in spite of knowing better, too many presenters face the slides and read them to the audience.

More than a few PowerPoint presentations suck. Big time.

As a tool PowerPoint can be used well, if the people using it have the training, experience, and time to master it. (That’s a big “if.”) But, on the whole, I’d have to say that it’s used not well, but adequately.

(I recommend Speaking PowerPoint: The New Language of Business as a resource to help you or your people use PowerPoint better.)

3. Is PowerPoint the right tool?

The question that rarely gets asked is the most important one.

Just because you have a tool doesn’t mean you should use it. Not every time. Not for every situation.

PowerPoint’ is a tool for projecting information. Which makes it well suited for presentations that are primarily concerned with communicating information.

But not all presentations are about information.

Sometimes you want to influence people, to persuade them, to inspire them, to console them, or to cheer them on. And to do so, you need to appeal to their emotions and imaginations.

And sometimes you want to connect personally to your audience, speaking to them face to face with nothing to distract them. The last think you want, at such times, is for them to look at a screen.

Imagine how flat-footed, uninspiring, and inane Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Churchill’s “We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches,” and King’s “I Have a Dream” would be if they were set to PowerPoint.

So even if you think PowerPoint is a good enough tool and even if you use it well enough, you still need to ask if and when you should use it.

What do you think?

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.