Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Imagine there's no PowerPoint (it isn't hard to do)

Some years ago I worked in venture capital and part of my job was to sit in on entrepreneurs pitching to the partners. I was there to give my opinion on the people and the technology; I spent most of my time staring at PowerPoint presentations.

After a few months I was struck by the fact that these meticulously crafted presentations all looked essentially the same. It took me some time to realize that this was because the presenters had mastered the tool they were using, PowerPoint, and not the content they were presenting. Given the uncertainty in starting a business it's quite natural that entrepreneurs are often better at PowerPoint than truly knowing their business: they are, after all, starting something new and uncharted. Yet they always want to chart it on a slide.

It wasn't long after that that I read Edward Tufte's The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. Early on in that essay he makes that point that PowerPoint is "presenter-oriented, not audience-oriented or content-oriented". And because PowerPoint guides the user in a certain presentation style all those presentations that entrepreneurs sweated over looked the same.

It's common in VC presentations to have VCs ask to skip over slides, or to simply direct the meeting by asking specific questions. This is, indirectly, an indictment of PowerPoint: the signal to noise ratio is so bad that the audience is bored quickly. Beautifully produced content, with perfected fonts and (god forbid) animations are consumed like the food that mother birds regurgitate for their offspring.

And that's what PowerPoint presentations are: pre-digested food for easy consumption. The trouble is, it's the presenter who did the digesting which means that the audience is missing half the information.

What I had the urge to do many times was to turn off the projector and give the entrepreneur a white board pen and have him (it was always a him) stand in front of the board and explain their business or technology without crutches. There's no better judge of whether a person gets it as whether they can explain their business a capella.

I would have been willing to turn the projector back on for a product demo (although I'd rather have huddled around a screen with the entrepreneur if possible).

Now, of course, some written material is important for an investor pitch (or a sales call), but I'd rather have a printed document than a deck of slides. Decks of slides are massive, and lacking in detailed content. They also have no narrative. The sequential style of PowerPoint means that they read like a children's story book: a few words per page, some pretty pictures and a story without jumps, flashbacks or asides. It's as if Charlie and Lola is the high point of our education.

If you had to chose between writing prose, poetry or PowerPoint, err on the side of prose. Writing prose forces you to tell a story about your business, about your technology, or about your team. Documents can freely contain very detailed financial statements that are a nightmare to format on a slide, diagrams with very high fidelity, and long descriptions: in a document there's space for adverbs and adjectives that won't fit on a slide.

It's much harder to write good prose than good PowerPoint, and that, in itself, is a good thing. If you are forced to think in prose, you'll be forced to actually describe your business or technology. I know how hard it is to stare at a blank page and start to write, but that difficulty is not because writing is difficult, it's because organizing your thoughts is difficult. Don't fall into the PowerPoint trap that somehow bullets will make your thoughts clearer.

The reality is that bullets are a crutch for the weak-minded.

Here's my perfect technology presentation.

1. The entrepreneur sits opposite me at a small table and looks directly at me. He talks to me.

2. The entrepreneur hands me a printed document describing his business, pages are clearly numbered and throughout his pitch he refers me to specific pages or figures (there are no pie charts).

3. The entrepreneur uses a large laptop to show a product demo. A white board is on hand if he wishes to diagram something.

I realize that you may say that I'm a dreamer, to think of a world without slides, but I'm not the only one. I hope someday you'll join us.


chris said...

Great post. The best quote I have ever heard in relation to PowerPoint, "PowerPoint is a distraction,"..."People use it when they don't know what to say.". From this article on Wired near the end of page 4.
Fits perfectly with what you are saying, I believe.

elxdraco said...

I agree, I agree so much it almost hurts. But I remember that these things getting rammed into my brain by teachers at school, so guess they got the same treatment.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks that flashy animating PowerPoint presentations are horribly empty and boring.

tjp said...

Where do I sign up?

Chris Bird said...

It's strange - I am always told my PowerPoints are boring because they are text based. I use just the items as the aides memoires for the speech itself. But some cultures are so indoctrinated with fancy slides that they don't get the idea of simple slides with compelling stories.
If you can't tell a story without, you have no business presenting!