Powerpoint – A Frenemy?

Here’s the associated NYTimes article with this slide about American military strategy in Afghanistan.

Extreme: Yes, Unusual: No. This looks like a great example of what not to do in a presentation (and imagine this being used as a tool to recommend war strategies!!).

Over the last couple of years, I have started enjoying a whitepaper on a subject more than a crisp powerpoint slide. This is contrary to the milli-second attention span theory of the present times. My main reasons for seemingly going against the trend are:

  • Full articles have way more life than a slide deck. Most of the slide decks are not meant for reading without the presenter. Ideally, there should be a slide deck for presenting, and another more detailed version for offline reading. But I don’t know who has that kind of a time. Some of the more common things that I have seen used to address is dilemma are:
    • Detailed notes in the “speaker notes” area of PPT. But that’s a text only area and I don’t think you can insert graphics and tables in there
    • Have a large number of Appendix. While these are useful, the story and transitions are lost.
  • Powerpoint slides can often used as crutches for bad public speaking. For the audience, the take-away is a low-detailed slide with nothing else to remember the story by.
  • In any multi-week/multi-month project, the employee often keeps notes and other analysis that is done to come to the final conclusions. I often feel good knowledge and sources get lost when we do not make an attempt to capture that knowledge in a whitepaper.
  • A complicated story is only as good as the presenter’s visual capability to makes a bulletized or a graphical argument. As the above article also mentions, some issues might be more interconnected and not lend themselves a slide deck format. Making a complicated argument in written detail is not anymore easier, but at least the false limits of “slides” is not present.

So what’s a good way?

I am inclining towards a crisp slide deck, supported by a whitepaper for posterity.

How is this any better that making two versions of the slide deck? I believe that making slides is more time consuming because of the slide-size limitations, the urge to keep the formats visually appealing and consistent. Basically more cosmetic work is needed in a slide deck than publishing the same analysis in a whitepaper with a few subheadings and use more flexibility to present a full logic of the conclusions. Typos are also more forgivable in a whitepaper than a deck 🙂

I’d love to know any other POVs.

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2 thoughts on “Powerpoint – A Frenemy?

  1. Reminds me of the way we did things at Amazon. Amazon was anti-Powerpoint and this came all the way from Jeff Bezos. You wouldn’t dare give a ppt presentation to Jeff. And all for good reason.

    I see a ppt as a tool for sales and marketing folk to used for convincing gullible customers regarding the magic potential of their product. Especially so, if the presentation had colorful graphs and fancy animation. Other possible uses would be in cases where breadth is more important than depth – such as tech talks or any presentation to a broad audience.

    But for any serious work, ppts are useless. A white paper is definitely the way to go. When we ran meetings at Amazon, the presenter would usually have a white paper they would circulate at the beginning of the meeting. The first 15-20 mins people would spend reading the paper, and use the rest of the meeting for Q&A. Big advantage being that people actually had to understand what was going on to be able to ask pertinent questions. And any information that the presenter wanted to convey was in front of them as a hard copy to understand and analyze – not just some words the presenter had said and long since forgotten. Moreover people didn’t fall asleep listening to a drab presentation :).

    • Wow, this sounds like a unique practice. Have not heard it elsewhere. Do you know if this was the case only in engineering or other departments of Amazon too? Also, was this typically a small team scenario?

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