Those who know me know that I love to tell a story, and that I’m not afraid to speak in front of people. This has meant professionally that I end up giving a lot of presentations, and that I’m also pretty good at it. Part of that I attribute to my personality, and part of it I attribute to training I received at IBM a long time ago. IBM, at least years ago, was a REALLY presentation oriented company. They had a program called FOILS5 that was used to make what we would call “Powerpoint presentations” today, though with none of your fancy colours, clip art or animations. FOILS5 made a manly, spartan type of presentation slide… with one font style and nothing but bullets everywhere. We made them in xedit on our monochrome VM terminals, and we liked it! When we typed them in … the keyboards sounded like German spandau machine guns.
Sorry, I’m waxing nostalgic. Back to the point.
After my last co-op term, when I was working in London, I was hired as a student marketing rep for IBM at the University of Waterloo. As part of my training, I took a course on presentations that must have cost about $500,000 to produce. It was an automated course presented on some specialized learning kiosk. It scares me to think about how expensive the kiosk sitting in the back room of the IBM London office was… and how expensive that course was. Maybe that’s why I remember what they taught so vividly.
One of the key things that course hammered home was that people in your audience deserve your respect, and to never forget that they are intelligent people who if nothing else, can read. Don’t insult them by putting up a slide with a bunch of bullet points and then reading out loud what they read to themselves in 1/10th the time it takes you to say it.
I’ve always taken that and other advice to heart, and so I thought that I was avoiding the major pitfalls that most people hit when they’re presenting. I know more than most what a terrible weapon Powerpoint is in the hands of the average presenter.
And then Harumi loaned me Tufte’s Cognitive Style of Powerpoint.
The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint is an essay, rather than a book, and so it was a quick read. For those of you who know Tufte, it won’t surprise you to hear that it packed more insightful thought into those few pages than most books do in 40 times as many.
After devouring the essay, it became obvious to me that there weretwo key things that I failed to fully consider when I used powerpoint to accompany my presentations:
1) Even when I do a good job of only using a powerpoint presentation as a framing point for my presentations, I would often blithely agree to send out softcopies of the presentation for people to refer to later. I guess in my mind, I would imagine that they would read them over, happily re-living the experience of me standing in front of them talking away. I didn’t spend nearly enough time thinking about what was happening when people were forwarding those softcopies to others who weren’t at the meeting, and most importantly for my career, handing them to people up the management chain. I know that my presentaions don’t give the whole story of what I said, halfway by design, and halfway because as Tufte goes to great length to point out, because Powerpoint sucks at presenting information.
2) The structure of Powerpoint shapes the very arguments and data that you use when making a presentation accompanied with a powerpoint presentation. My data, my conclusions, my recommendations are all under my control and come out of my brain, but ultimately I end up having to cram them onto a slide, into a bulleted list, perhaps with an accopanying table or graphic, so long as that also fits into a slide with a few bullet points next to it. Then the structure of my thesis unfolds, with sequential point after sequential point coming out one slide at a time, each with its acccompanying bullet points. Yet all this time, I never really asked myself “What if my argument doesn’t fit that style? What if my argument isn’t sequential? Isn’t that a rather dumb way of making a point? When it comes right down to it, isn’t it a very very simplistic way of speaking to people?”
The really scary part of Tufte’s essay comes when he deconstructs some NASA powerpoint slides and analyzes how they (and by implication Powerpoint itself) contributed to the shuttle Colombia’s fatal accident.
Some days I feel like Powerpoint will be the end of us all. Let’s face it, for most of us, using Powerpoint or some equivalent is a requirement for our jobs. There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t have to “whip up a deck” in Powerpoint. I certainly can’t say no because Tufte told me to. I will be better about it in the future. I will have accompanying notes, I will write full reports wherever I can, and if my info doesn’t fit onto a slide or into a deck, then I won’t change it to cram it there. That is bullet point number 1 for the new deck of my work life.
In a related note, and to lighten the mood of this downer piece, I offer you this piece of black humour.