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How to Avoid Death by PowerPoint

Ty Nilsson
Sr. Director of Demand Generation at Tiled
November 23, 2021

Introduction

In the summer of 2010, Col. Lawrence Sellin of the U.S. Army Reserve had seen enough. Assigned to NATO Command in Kabul, he worried that the military’s leaders were too preoccupied with bureaucracy and not enough with their mission. So he wrote an article in UPI in which he complained that “little of substance is really done here.” In his story, he singled out a piece of office software you may have heard of: PowerPoint. Instead of trying to win the war, he said, the military brass was “endlessly tinkering with PowerPoint slides to conform with the idiosyncrasies of cognitively challenged generals in order to spoon-feed them information.”

His post didn’t win him many friends. In fact, his superiors sent him home. But Sellin didn’t apologize, telling Foreign Policy that “the overuse of PowerPoint can give the illusion of progress, when it is really only motion in the form of busywork. It can confuse the volume of information with the quality of information.”

And although Sellin got in trouble, other senior members of the U.S. military seem to have had similar feelings. In April of the same year, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal joked about an overly complex presentation, “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”

Are You Thinking of Making a Slide Deck?

Ever since it was released in 1987, people have been complaining about PowerPoint. The phrase “death by PowerPoint” dates back to at least 1996, when Accountancy Age magazine quoted an executive using it

Many leaders of major tech companies frown on it. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs told his biographer that the software inhibited critical thinking.

“People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint,” he said. Jobs demanded that staffers work out their ideas on whiteboards or in conversations, rather than dully reciting text from slides. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer are all on the record discouraging PowerPoint too.

Perhaps the biggest hater is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who banned PowerPoint decades ago. In his 1997 letter to shareholders, Bezos explained what the company’s leadership did instead. “We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon,” he wrote. “Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of ‘study hall.’”

PowerPoint can be the wrong tool for internal presentations, topics that require collective thought and conversation, and for simplifying complex material. In fact, data visualization expert Edward Tufte argues that a poorly written PowerPoint slide may have prevented NASA from realizing the danger the space shuttle Columbia was in after a piece of foam got stuck in its wing during launch. Although engineers were communicating information about the peril the shuttle was in, their slide was so confusing that NASA didn’t do anything and the shuttle tragically burned up on reentry, killing all seven crew members.

Make Fewer Presentations and Be Smart About the Ones You Do 

To be fair, tragic cases like that one are extreme outliers, but the costs of bad or unnecessary presentations are common. 

You’re probably thinking that we’re biased, since we (humbly) think Tiled is a lot better than PowerPoint.

And while we do think you should give us a try, to be honest, we think that no matter what presentation software you use, you should probably be making fewer presentations altogether.

Is that weird to say? 

We don’t like boring presentations any more than you do. And while there are many ways to make your presentation more interesting — including Tiled — there are many times when you don’t actually need to make a presentation at all.

Does your work require collaboration? In other words, do you need to hash something out with your colleagues? You should probably just talk with them! Especially for internal meetings, we recommend against presentations. If it worked for Steve Jobs, who are we to disagree?

Is the material you’re trying to get across very complicated? You might need to write it down and share it as a briefing document, the way that Bezos insists on. Writing — and especially rewriting — forces you to be as clear as you can be.

If you do need to make a speech with a visual component, think hard about what to include and what to leave out. Practice a few times with colleagues and get their feedback. Do you really need that extra slide? Nobody wants to end up like that famous joke about the Gettysburg PowerPoint presentation.

Bring Your Presentations to Life

That doesn’t mean you should never use a document to back up your presentation. Just be smart about it when you do.

With Tiled’s no-code interactive content platform, you can build microapps that can act as a powerful aid instead of a presentation. You can add interactive elements, a natural flow that allows you to scroll through your material, and more. We think it will bring your presentations to life. 

That is, the ones you really need to make.

Topics
Presentations
PowerPoint Alternatives
Engaging Content
Ty Nilsson
Sr. Director of Demand Generation at Tiled