June 1, 2012  

PowerPoint: You’re doing it wrong

For persuasive presentations, try this alternative approach

We love to hate PowerPoint, but we keep using it. The criticisms of Microsoft’s ubiquitous presentation tool are serious: that it weakens the quality of analytical thinking, communication and decision-making. Yet its use is so firmly established in the services that it is unclear whether anything can be done about it. The good news is that there is a growing amount of scholarly research that — while confirming that the problems with it are real — points the way toward some dramatic, and highly effective, alternative approaches.

Several research studies affirm that projecting slides containing lists of bullet points, while speaking at the same time, is less effective than speaking without any slides at all. This is because the audience tries to read the slides and listen to the speaker simultaneously, and does neither particularly well. (You have no trouble reading this page right now, but how well would you do if I were also talking to you at the same time?) Other research shows that PowerPoint use can hurt strategic thinking and decision-making.

The standard panaceas don’t help much. Some are based on attempts to emulate great presenters. The late Steve Jobs’ presentations were legendary, but your typical military presentation has to communicate far more complex, serious and possibly controversial material than an announcement about the latest consumer electronics device.

Most conventional wisdom is not much better. “Everyone” knows, for example, that only 7 percent of your communication impact comes from your words, while the other 93 percent comes from your body language, tone of voice, etc. But this is patently absurd; what is the point of all our data gathering and analysis if it adds up to only 7 percent? (In fact, this particular statistic comes from a 1981 study of interpersonal communication about feelings. Appropriate enough when talking to your spouse about how you feel about each other, for example, but usually quite irrelevant to the average PowerPoint presentation in the armed forces.)

Fortunately, some other research offers better guidance about where and how to use PowerPoint. Empirical research from the fields of education, psychology, communications, advertising and even law (e.g., studying the presentation practices of successful trial lawyers) helps us understand what kinds of visual layouts are most effective and how to structure and sequence a presentation.

Improvement begins by recognizing where PowerPoint can be useful, and where it should be avoided. While a speech with fairly conceptual or simple ideas could be usefully supported with the projection of images (e.g. photographs, diagrams, maps, with little or no text), projected PowerPoint slides, in general, are not very useful for complex informational briefings. This is because people absorb complex information better when each individual controls his or her own rate of information flow — i.e., when they are reading.


So when is it appropriate to use PowerPoint? The best use of PowerPoint is for overcoming strong audience resistance or bias: when advocacy — persuasion — is needed. And persuasion is needed often, because human beings have a remarkable ability to cling to their biases, even in the face of disconfirming information. A 1977 study comparing scientists, who are supposedly objective, with “relatively uneducated” and presumably biased Protestant ministers found both groups more or less equally likely to hold on to their initial hypotheses, long after receiving contradictory information. To overcome such resistance, a highly persuasive presentation approach is needed. Used correctly, PowerPoint can be helpful here.

Research about persuasion provides us with three relevant principles. The first principle is avoid all distraction. Distractions give the human mind an opportunity to escape from the relentless logic of a well-crafted persuasion attempt, so avoid providing any such opportunity. Therefore eliminate, without exception, all embellishment, unnecessary color, irrelevant details, cutesy clip art and fancy animations from any presentation that is attempting to persuade.

The second principle is that details are crucial. This can sound surprising: Isn’t having too much detail on each slide one of the biggest criticisms of the way we use PowerPoint? How can the audience absorb details quickly? But that’s the point. Slides should not be designed for quick absorption. Each slide should be carefully crafted to contain all the relevant details, and only the relevant details, and then presented in a way that allows as much time as needed for it to be understood properly. What this means is that we should have far fewer, more thoughtfully prepared slides. I have been in highly successful hourlong meetings with senior business executives with only one slide.

The third principle is that persuasion requires interaction. There’s a persistent misconception that human beings are persuaded by being talked at. This is how advertising appears to work, so we assume that that’s how presentations should work. But advertising is designed to capture the attention of people who are not inclined to pay attention. When you are giving a presentation, however, you already have your audience’s attention, and your job is to keep that attention and convert it to persuasion, which is a very different kind of challenge. People are more inclined to be persuaded when they have a chance to talk back, to discuss, to argue, and therefore interaction — discussion — is essential if you want to persuade your audience. This means that slides should be designed to facilitate both presentation and discussion, with the latter being the more important of the two.


For this to work, the layout of each slide is absolutely critical. The most important point here is that the layout of each slide should pass the “squint test.” It means that if you squint at the slide, so that it is blurry and you can’t read any of the text on it, you should still get a good enough idea of what the main point of the slide is: It’s a linear process, or a cycle, or a set of factors bearing on a situation, etc. The way the content is laid out on the slide should echo the meaning of that content. In this way, the layout of the slide organizes the content of the slide for the audience, so that even if there is a large amount of detail on it, the audience will “get” what the slide is about the moment they see the slide. This will then allow them to follow the presenter’s explanation of the slide without feeling a need to read the whole thing to understand what it is about.

A slide that passes the squint test avoids the problem I mentioned earlier, of people trying to read the slide and listen to the speaker at the same time. When presented with a slide that contains only a list of bullets, it seems to me that the audience immediately starts reading the bullets to find out what is on the slide. When they see a slide that passes the squint test, they can tell instantly what the slide is about because of the layout, and therefore, I believe, they are more inclined to listen to the presenter’s explanation.

But for this to work, the slides have to be printed and handed out, not projected. This allows you to fit more information on each slide, and therefore use fewer slides. Research indicates that information is more easily understood if relevant material is located on the same slide, rather than spread out over multiple slides. Therefore, it’s actually a good thing to include more information on each slide (so long as that information is both necessary and relevant, and the slide layout passes the squint test), in order to have fewer slides. To do this, you need to use a smaller font, 12 or 10 point, which is too small to be projected but can be read easily from a printed slide. Also, allowing each audience member to have their own copy of the presentation — to make notes on it, to study it closely — seems to facilitate better discussion, and thus improve persuasion.

I can hear your reaction already: Printed slides, with lots of small text, minimal color and no projector — this is supposed to be an improvement? I get this response all the time when I propose this approach to managers in large corporations. Then they try the approach with their superiors, and they are amazed at the improvement. Printed slides, well laid out, with minimal color or any other distraction works — because it strips away all the distracting “PowerPoint Ranger” fluff and leaves only the essence of what needs to be discussed, and puts all the focus on that essence. However, if going back to paper handouts is just too retro for you, then you can achieve similar results with a projector and a program like Prezi (prezi.com), which allows you to project an image that passes the squint test, and then zoom into the details as needed.

Critics of PowerPoint argue for a return to the days of written memos. The kind of PowerPoint presentation I describe here can actually be superior to a written memo in its ability to persuade. They can require the same amount of careful thought in preparation that a memo requires, and can provide the audience with the same opportunity for consideration when provided in advance. But they are more supportive of discussion, given their visual nature.

Where could we go with this? The approach I have described here, solidly based on existing empirical research, could be adopted with immediate, positive results and no investment in any kind of new technology. It could be taught in war colleges instead of the standard PowerPoint how-to courses. The existing research could also be extended to explore the more unique communication requirements of the services, to further strengthen this approach.

This could truly be the death of Death by PowerPoint.

ANDREW V. ABELA is the chairman of the Department of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He blogs at extremepresentation.typepad.com.