6 May 2010

When we understand this slide...

THE MAN, THE MESSAGE, THE MEDIUM Earlier this week, I attended a presentation by a very senior manager in my company; the man by himself was inspiring, what he had to say was interesting and his body language was down-to-earth and honest... but his Power-point slides were a different matter altogether. Somebody had created a complex structure which weaved back & forth, interspersed with slides carrying 13 double-lined sentences or bullets with sub-bullets which had further nested text – whoa, what was happening here?!

Sure enough, as we progressed through the slides, (IMHO), the presenter found it increasingly difficult to explain each and every one of those points. In many cases, he skipped over some points, while in others he laboured his way through each and every one, trying very hard to fit all of them into the context of what he was explaining. It would be easy blame this on the creator of this specific deck or on the complexities of the business we operate in or maybe even label it as a cultural artefact of a tech-co… but I believe that something else ails us all – the medium of Powerpoint.

“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war”
Last week Elisabeth Bumiller wrote a great article in The NYT about the pervasive infiltration of Powerpoint in the US Army; when Gen Stanley A. McChrystal was shown the image above on a slide, he exclaimed “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war”. Bumiller quotes a legendary essay “Dumb Dumb Bullets” by Col. TX Hammes in The Armed Forces Journal which explains the logic of how MS PPT is a particularly bad decision-making aid. Ye gods, you say?

Well, here’s the gist of what he says:

  • The predecessor of Powerpoint, the lowly common memo, required people to summarize complex issues into coherent arguments; but bullets aren’t sentences and they allow one to dump information on slide without bothering with prior analysis or constructing an argument.

  • If and when a complex argument is unavoidable, the creator of the PPT dumps paragraphs of text on a slide – this forces the audience to read the slide while the presenter is talking about it – neither act is done effectively.

  • Most powerpoint decks are created with an approximate time limited of 1 minute/ slide; consider the average slide with nifty animation, flow of events, waterfall diagrams and ‘a-ha’ boxes; how much time does the audience have to absorb this overload, leave alone synthesize the underlying implications and respond accordingly? If you had, 20 pieces of information per slide, that makes it 3 seconds per piece. Now you understand Col.Hammes barely suppressed urge to hammer the genius who came up with quad charts (divide a slide into 4 quadrants and fill them with info, voila!)

  • The author agrees that Powerpoint has it’s uses as an information brief; it’s an excellent training aid and presents a rich variety of text, audio and video options. However if the objective is to stimulate thinking, impart a deep understanding of a subject or lay out the complex content for making an important decision, the ordinary text-filled 1 or 2 page memo may still be the best bet.

MY PERSONAL TAKE My take on this stems from personal experience at the University of Chicago; I worked with two outstanding professors, with Sanjay Dhar as a Teaching Assistant and with Mathew Bothner as a student. These professors insisted that for every assignment, all they wanted was a 1 page submission. This not only forced us to put content over gimmicky templates/animation but also helped us cut out the chaff and prioritize the most important arguments that would lead to a convincing conclusion. Some of these cases required sophisticated financial calculations, information from interviews with stakeholders and consideration of complex regulatory issues… but at the end of it, the final decision would be summarized in the famous 1 page memo.

What do you think? How have your experiences with Powerpoint been? I would be particularly interested in hearing from people who were used to memos and now handle PPT. Let me know.

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