shaun parachute terror


I was struck on reading this very good article about how powerpoint is killing critical thought and its impact on the quality of lectures at universities. I recognise the complaint that bullet points damage learning. And I recognise that for many people, talking to a group is one of the scariest things you have to do short of jumping out of a plane. So hanging on to a few bullets points is reassuring.

A client once told me that he always went out of his way to refuse point blank when asked to make a presentation to justify anything. The request signified his audience didn’t understand yet. And making a presentation was not likely to get them to understand. He wanted a good conversation. So he asked for that, before he would document anything.

So does powerpoint, or more correctly, the inappropriate use of powerpoint damage your thinking or chances of persuading people?

I have a perspective on this, having created & delivered a fair bit of content in powerpoint and keynote over many years in many places to many different kinds of groups of people. The moment you open a laptop, you have changed what is likely to happen, whether talking with 1 person or a hundred people. That could be a good thing, or not.

‘Powerpoint or not?’ isn’t the right question. It’s just a tool for you to use. You choose when & how to use it. So don’t blame powerpoint.

Writing slides in bullet points helps you summarise your points to yourself. It does not necessarily help your intended reader understand your point. The genuine audience or reader wants context, explanation, understanding. They need to share their views.

Putting slides on a wall changes the environment as surely as holding a meeting in a foreign language or in a loud coffee shop where people can’t hear each other. You are making it easy for people. Alias lowering the load on their brain. People can relax. Brains have time to wander. So you have to engage people by using templates other than bullet points and by asking a question.

Putting many words on a slide and then saying them out loud adds no value. If you put many words on a page then let & expect people to read them, preferably in advance. Then pose a question and cause them to discuss it.

Bullet points work well in linear arguments. Most issues are complex, dynamic and interconnected. Because people are complex, dynamic and their brains hold thoughts and ideas in interconnected ways. Otherwise why would you be talking about the issue as it would be sorted already. Pictures and stories express complexity in receivable ways to our brains.

Writing in bullet points, narrows your thinking. Pick up a pen and a blank sheet of paper and work out your story. Force yourself to draw it in pictures. Or a mind map. Get a really big bit of paper so you can keep going. Stand back and decide which parts of your story you want and which you don’t want.

Presentation helps you make your point. It does not necessarily help you advance your argument unless your colleagues engage brain. Choose your weapons carefully according to the purpose you have. Powerpoint and keynote are great weapons used well and they can be used in many ways, formats and arenas.

Choose lots of bullet points if you don’t want the engagement.

If you want to go further, this paper examines the classic Colin Powell’s pitch to the UN for war in Iraq and gives deeper insights.