Death by PowerPoint. Literally.

Last week The New York Times had an interesting (and much-commented-upon) article about how PowerPoint is misused in the military.  This is actually a longer version of the article PowerPoint Makes You Dumb from the New York Times Magazine 2003 Year in Ideas.  The idea is that rather than illuminating, the slide program makes it easy to obfuscate. With, the article suggests, deadly consequences.  The article includes a screen shot of a particular impenetrable graphic slide. A military leader is quoted as saying, “When we understand that slide, we’ve won the war.”

The consequences in the business world are, generally, much less dire. But PowerPoint is no less problematic in terms of creating more confusion than consensus.

I came to PowerPoint relatively late in my career. I started out in book publishing where PowerPoint was (at least then) unheard of. I literally don’t think I’d ever even seen it. I moved on to web editorial work at iVillage. I’m sure people there used PowerPoint, probably people in sales or biz dev. But in the editorial department we worked in Word or Excel.

When I arrived at Return Path to work in consulting I had to learn how to use it, fast. Fortunately, the people I worked with had ideas about how to use PowerPoint that went beyond the 7 X 7 rule. But my ideas about how PowerPoint could be used changed radically when I found this presentation on SlideShare as part of their “Best Presentations” contest four years ago. At first I was blown away but also intimidated. No way could I do something like that.

But then, one day, I did.

This is the “Dolphin Deck.” I used a simple analogy to tell a complex story. It’s not perfect, but it was light years ahead of anything I’d ever created before. It was quite thrilling.

At the end of the day, the problem is not the software (it never is, is it?). The problem is the way people use it. PowerPoint can actually be helpful for telling a story. But you have to have a good story to tell. If you don’t — well that’s when you end up with dozens of slides filled with scores of bullet points yet devoid of content.

The next time you need to write a presentation, do yourself a favor. Before you even open up PowerPoint, figure out what your story is. I recommend beginning in Word and writing an outline (but I’m a writer, so that is how I think). Once you know what the story is then you’ll know how to tell it.

* Want to see another one? Here’s an example of a presentation I did last year to showcase our company’s email certification product.

*Another great resource is the aptly named “Death by PowerPoint.” Key takeaway: one point per slide. He makes the point — and it’s obvious, but aren’t the best ones always thus? — that the extra slide is free. There is zero cost for adding slides, so why are you stuffing the information onto slides like sardines in a can? Spread ’em out!