When Power Point Fails

Oops I read this article recently, PowerPoint Does Rocket Science–and Better Techniques for Technical Reports” by Edward Tufte.

Read this article.  Seriously, read it.

It is technical and it gets into details and isn’t constrained to just one page.  It has long paragraphs.  Read it anyway.

It highlights how we have come to depend on Power Point and its conventions – even when that medium or those conventions don’t work.  And how, in this instance, might have led to disaster.

Why Are You Using Power Point?

I have talked in other blog postings about using power point to tell a story (see here).  PPT can be very effective if used right.  It can also be horrible if used wrong.

Much of the horribleness of it can be traced back to PPT not being the right medium to meet your communication need.  For instance, the Edward Tufte article linked above is about how NASA used PPT  to convey highly detailed and important technical information that was being used to make very important decisions.  The problem is that PPT isn’t a very good medium for this type of information.  It is actually horrible for it.

I’ve talked previously about how we need to understand the objective of our communication.  Sometimes we need to get people excited and leave the fine points for later.  Sometimes we need to get into the weeds and explain in great detail what is going on.   These two objectives most likely require different communication mediums – but too often we try to use PPT for both.

Don’t get me wrong – Power Point can be fantastic if used right.

Key insights from NASA

Convention forces most topic content onto one page – the way that Power Point is designed, forces most of us to put most if not all of the content for one topic area onto one slide regardless of if one slide is the appropriate length.  We tend to use one slide to convey information about a topic and then move on to the next slide and the next topic area.   This might be fine, if all of our topic areas can be discussed and information disseminated in that space – but often this is not the case.  We need more space. We need to be able to elaborate and explain ideas.  We need to show detail information or get into the minutia of the topic.  When this happens, we need to make sure that we don’t follow the conventions of PPT and limit ourselves to one page.

Important detail contained in sub-bullets devalued – we naturally look at the headlines.  In PPT that means the main bullets.  Those details that are subjugated to sub-bullets are devalued and carry less weight.  In the NASA example, this meant that some significant information was not valued as highly as other information.   I myself have been guilty of this – and every time I’ve done it in a presentation, those details presented in the sub-bullets tend to get glossed over.

Forces use of shorthand or acronyms – to a certain degree, PPT helped Twitter succeed.  We had become accustom to using shorthand, cryptic sentences to convey information because we needed it to fit onto one line or in a small area on the slide.  That made 140 characters seem like a novel.  What this does, however, is make the audience fill in the blank or interpret the meaning.  It also means that we have to leave some info out.

Is not easy to have certain types of information shown – in the NASA example, they talk about how statistical nomenclature isn’t supported by PPT and thus, the authors used other ways to express statistical findings – which could be very confusing.  PPT also doesn’t do well certain types of graphs or highly detailed pictures.  There are ways to work around this – but for the average PPT developer, these are either unknown or too time consuming to do.

Compensation Communication

Make sure that you are using Power Point the right way and avoid the pitfalls that are discussed here.  Particularly be aware of this when you create your compensation communication.  Too often I see people trying to convey the details of their incentive plans or contest in PPT – when what they actually need to do is put that in a separate document.

Here is my big tip – don’t try to do all of your  compensation communication using one document (whether that be PPT, word, or a printed piece).  It is important to create a campaign and to use different communication mediums to achieve different goals.

What other pitfalls do you know of?  Leave a comment and share your insight.

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