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Slides: Not Just For Presentations Anymore March 26, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Communication.

When was the last time you wrote (or read) a multi-page report written using a word processing application? Microsoft’s PowerPoint and competing presentation apps seem to have become the new standard for all office communications that requires more detail than e-mail or text messages. Presentation apps apparently aren’t just for slide shows anymore. This trend has been the target of satire, see for example the viral version of Dr. Martin Luther King’s inspiring “I Have a Dream” speech rendered as sterilized bullet points (“I Have an Action Item”).

I suppose we could lament the demise of the written report. I belong to a generation that spent a lot of time learning how to compose a three-paragraph persuasive essay in less than an hour, with introduction, paragraph transitions, and a conclusion. I’d like to think this has helped me write better e-mails, and I’m sure that training will be an asset if I ever decide to write the next Great American Novel.

In business communication (unlike art), what matters ultimately is how effectively we transfer information from one-to-one or one-to-many, and I don’t think we should waste a lot of time criticizing the evolution of the medium. There are people who have already moved on from PowerPoint to animation and “voice and white board” videos that are very effective and entertaining. See for example Khan Academy lessons and the RSA Animate videos on YouTube.

Most of us lack the design or production skills to move beyond simple graphs, flow charts and fade-in/fade-out animation on PowerPoint, and unfortunately many are still stuck on bulleted text as the default slide layout. That’s not necessarily a problem when the slides are used to accompany an oral presentation with audience interaction, but flat, one-dimensional slides fail to convey useful information when they’re read later by people who weren’t at the meeting.

We don’t have to be artists, but can we at least avoid these examples of poor PowerPoint usage?

1. The “This is a Horse” slide. We’ve all seen something like this. The title of the slide is “This is a Horse,” and yes, that’s a picture of a horse. I can see that, but can you tell me why I should care? The title of a slide is like a story headline and should lead the viewer (or reader) to a shared understanding. “Trends in Worldwide Smart Phone Adoption” is not nearly as interesting a title as ” WW Sales of Smart Phones Now Exceed PCs.”

2. The “Here’s All the Data, You Try to Figure Out What It Means” slide. These are the slides with rows and columns of data, or perhaps a graph, but no explanation. The reader is left to draw their own conclusion, which may not necessarily be the conclusion that they’re supposed to draw. A critical reader will probably do that anyway, but at least tell us what your conclusion is. I assume you’re trying to communicate some finding, or possibly even persuade me to take some action. Please don’t make me guess. The easiest way to do this is to highlight the take-home message in a text box.

3. The “I Have No Idea What We Should Do Next, I Hope You Do” presentation. A longer version of #2 above, this is the presentation that ends abruptly with no next steps, no conclusions, and no recommendations. Even a report that provides a simple status update for an ongoing project should at least include a summary of near-term planned activities.

By the way, a simple bulleted list may be a terrible slide during the presentation, but it’s actually pretty effective for the person who reads the file later. I wonder if we should be creating one slide set for the meeting and another for those who couldn’t attend.



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