Friday, September 15, 2006

Death by PowerPoint

One of the "fun" things about working in an IT office environment is how often you have to sit through some agonising over-long pointless presentation that sucks the very life-force out of you. It has been said that one should never ascribe to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity but I am starting to suspect their is some sort of secret management cabal that meets in dark caves to plot ways to torture us poor workers. The Society for Cruel and Unusual Management perhaps? And its graduates are given the title of official Developer of Really Odious Presentations.

The weapon of choice for these SCUMDROPs is without doubt Microsoft's PowerPoint. If you've never experienced someone attempting to inflict Death by PowerPoint, count yourself lucky. I have heard people say that this isn't the fault of PowerPoint, it's the fault of the presenters. Yeah, right - guns don't kill people, people kill people. It's just that someone with lots of guns has a head start on killing lots of people and these SCUMDROPs wouldn't be half as dangerous without PowerPoint in their arsenal.

You get over 7 million hits on Google for Death by PowerPoint but my favourite online resource for showing the horrible potential of PowerPoint to destroy a presentation was done by Peter Norvig. He has constructed a PowerPoint version of one of the most famous speeches in modern history, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. This devilspawn software effortlessly reduces one of the most powerful pieces of oratory ever into meaningless drivel with dot points and charts. Much like every business presentation I've ever seen. Apart from the fact the presentations in question were probably never going to be great oratory in the first place.

Recently I had the misfortune of being subjected to one of the worst excesses in Death by PowerPoint I can imagine. I was working for a company that was looking to acquire an ERP system to run the finances and logistics for their nation-wide business. This is a fairly big ticket purchase so there were a lot of vendors vying for the contract. Included in the contenders was one of the biggest international players in this field (I won't mention them by name but they're known by the acronym of their German name which rhymes, appropriately enough, with CRAP)

Like all of the vendors they were allocated one hour to make their initial pitch. They were told this ahead of time: "You have ONE HOUR to explain your product to us." Their presentation was obviously the company's standard one and it involved 85 PowerPoint slides. 85! What made it worse was nearly all of them were animated, often involving sound and ALL of them were too complicated to understand by simply looking at them. And they barrelled through them in less than 60 minutes. More than a slide a minute when it would have taken a minute just to read the words that were on each slide.

So the audience were barraged with an hour of whooshing noises, flying text and blinking lights that left us all exhausted and more confused than when we started. It absolutely boggles my mind that when several million dollars are at stake, a supposedly world-leading company would not take the time to put together a presentation that would actually be meaningful to a potential customer. Maybe I'm giving the presenters in question too much credit but they could not possibly have though any audience was going to enjoy being rushed through so many slides in an hour. The real problem is that there were too many slides for any length of time and they were far too complicated but their crimes was made exponentially worse by cramming it all into an hour.

Any rational person would say that this is only going to end badly for the company in question. The only conclusion I could draw (besides the possibility that the presenters were clinically insane) is that they thought they could overwhelm us with the sheer volume of their presentation. Then when we were too weak and dazed to struggle they could force us to sign a contract. Needless to say, they shot themselves in the head at this meeting and we never spoke to them again. I was going to say they shot themselves in the foot but seriously, these guys had the barrel in their mouth when they pulled the trigger.

If anyone can explain to me how travesties like this continue to happen in the corporate world I'd really like to hear your thoughts. Every available piece of literature says DON'T DO THIS and yet it continues to happen. I can almost forgive a clueless middle manager who is simply committing a sin of ignorance but this was from a supposedly world-leading IT company! I would be wishing for this company to collapse under its own weight but they're so bloated their collapse would form a black hole that would destroy us all.

There are a million guides out there to help you avoid committing truly horrible crimes against humanity with PowerPoint. For god's sake, do everyone a favour and read some of them before your next presentation. If you think I'm exaggerating you haven't seen how bad things can get. I'm sure in the deepest, darkest pits of Gitmo there are gathered the world's most evil SCUMDROPs who work in teams to force detainees to watch 3 hour PowerPoint presentations. And each slide features animated text, charts and red writing on black backgrounds.

One thing you'll probably find if you read a few different guides is that they will contradict each other in places. It's more art than science and you'll have to decide for yourself who's opinion you agree with. Whichever guide you choose, remember the following three points over everything else - the rest is just detail:

PowerPoint is no good for explaining complex concepts: You can use it to illustrate or support points but you can't use it to teach. You have to be working closely with your subjects to teach anything complex or worthwhile - you can't do it with words on a screen.

PowerPoint is no good for words: If you think you need to provide your audience with lots of words then POWERPOINT IS THE WRONG TOOL! Don't use it just because it exists, use the appropriate medium. The printed word has served humanity well for centuries, try going with that.

PowerPoint is no good for inspiring an audience: It can work with basic reporting of data, it can reinforce or support points but it simply isn't inspiring. A good speaker can inspire an audience but not with PowerPoint. You can't reach out to an audience with PowerPoint, it actually distances you from them, it gets in the way.

In short: PowerPoint - just say no. Do it for the children. Won't somebody please think of the children? And if that doesn't sway you, remember this: guns don't kill people, people who have been forced to sit through one too many truly horrible PowerPoint presentations kill people. And the presenter is usually the first victim.

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