I am in the final stages of pulling together two workshops on presenting with Fred John from MasterCard, both of which will be run in Athens as part of the ESOMAR Congress. The first is The Power of Storytelling and Narrative and the second is Presenting: The Latest Tools and Techniques for Creating Compelling Presentations. Both of these presentations will use PowerPoint as the underlying method of organising and presenting material on the screen, because it is simply the best tool currently available (unless you are using a Mac when Keynote achieves pretty much the same thing).
There seems to be a trend to attack PowerPoint at the moment as being the source of the problem of bad presentations. But I am convinced that the problem rests mostly in the hands of the presenters. It is true that PowerPoint’s default layout and ready supply of bullets makes a boring presentation very easy to create, but that is like blaming bad driving on the car rather than the driver, or like saying paint should not be used for art because it is used for fences and doors.
Why do I use PowerPoint?
There are a large number of reasons I use it, but the following are probably the key ones:
- It is widely available. I can email people a PowerPoint presentation with a reasonable expectation that it will run on their machine, without them needing to access the Internet or download anything. I prefer to present from my laptop, but frequently this is not an option, for example at most conferences or in secure locations. Some care needs to be taken over fonts, versions of PowerPoint (which mostly means 97-2003 versus the latest format at the moment), and of course video and audio files.
- PowerPoint’s slide sorter view is a great way of organising slides. If I use Excel, Word, HTML, Publisher or any similar type of document, moving and re-ordering slides is slow, in PowerPoint it is easy.
- Builds make it easy to create meaningful presentations without having to use multiple slides or images. In particular animating charts, by category, by series, or by individual element is a really robust way of creating a narrative to a chart.
- PowerPoint is very good at re-sizing images without distorting them. I think it compares well with specialist products such as PaintShopPro.
- The print options of Handouts, Slides, and Notes are very convenient – but none of them create a good leave behind.
- The ability to control templates, fonts, backgrounds etc is very useful to create standardised and attractive presentations.
- If I need to automate tasks, then VBA is a very powerful tool to achieve this, especially if integrated with Excel.
One of the key points, in my opinion, is that PowerPoint does not push people into using bullets. When you make a new slide you will typically choose a layout and you will see (depending on how you have configured PowerPoint) the options below.
None of these options is a bullet list. Four of the nine options have a content container. A content container – such as the one below, has seven options.
The seven options in a content container are
I. Click to add text, this is the bullet option.
II. A table, the top left icon
III. A chart
IV. A SmartArt graphic – great for beginners to produce diagrams and with a range of built-in build options
V. A picture
VI. Clip art
VII. A movie file
So, each time a new slide is made the user is faced with 12 options, one of them is a bulleted list. If that user finds most of their slides are bulleted lists, should they really be criticising PowerPoint, or looking closer to home?
I find that most of the slides I use one of the two formats highlighted below
That is, most of my formats are a heading and nothing else or a blank slide. But even when I am using blank formats, PowerPoint is my choice of presentation software, because of the reasons I listed above.
Are there things that annoy me with PowerPoint or that I wish were better? Yes, absolutely! Key improvements I would like to see are:
- More audio and video formats. PowerPoint is almost flawless with wmv files, but anything beyond that is risky.
- I would like it to have more dynamic options, borrowing some ideas from Prezi.
- I would like a better way to create leave behind documents (PowerPoint usually sucks as a leave behind)
- A better and more powerful option than Chart (and less buggy)
Don’t use presentation software for non-presentation uses!
My final rant is that one of the problems is that people are using PowerPoint for things that are not presentations, and it is bad at most of those. Do not use PowerPoint as a vehicle for a brief or a quote, do not use it as a repository of information to be searched at a later date, do not use it as a method of exploring data or information, do not (normally) use it as a leave behind. It does not do any of those things well.
A presentation, in most cases, is where the presenter has something to say and the slides (including videos, flipcharts, audio etc) are simply there to let them tell their story. A presentation is a guided exercise (generally) where the presenter has done the work up front to discover the narrative theme and the slides help tell that story. If the session is not that sort of session, for example if you are working as a group to explore the meaning of some information, then use an alternative tool. For example, have the data in Excel, use prepared pages, but be ready to drill down to the data and prepare alternative views.
Or, more entertainingly
The video clip below shows a similar point being made in a humorous was by Don McMillan.