Dull Presentations and Organizational Change

Edward Tufte’s excellent essay ‘The Cognitive Value of Powerpoint’ contains an excerpt from Lou Gerstner’s autobiography, an anecdote from when he first joined IBM in the 1990s, when the typical method of making presentations was to use PowerPoint (or similar software of the period), often producing results with a low signal/noise ratio. Lou was less familiar with this, and after enduring a short part of a presentation from one of his senior executives using this method, Lou asked him if we could ‘just talk about your business’. This was famous within and without IBM at the time. Nevertheless, it seems to have been rapidly forgotten. IBM presentations still often have a low signal/noise ratio, with slide ‘decks’ used as a general method of information exchange (sent round in emails, used as substitutes for essays and documents). Tufte explains in detail why this isn’t an optimum method of communication.

This isn’t really a dig at IBM - it’s far from the only guilty party - in fact, at least today, these types of presentation are pretty much standard, with varying levels of quality from organisation to organisation, and also presenter to presenter. But is this an indication of how ingrained certain techniques and practices can be? Many people (including myself) realise the value of what Tufte says (and on the odd occasion I get, I try to practice it). But suggesting change is hard - people always have something else more urgent to be worrying about. This just doesn’t seem important to many - although in the long-term I feel it’s a key part of an organisation’s level of success.

It’s times like this I realise just how hard it must be being CEO - persuasion is so tough.


[...] A large majority of the presentation was dedicated to a speech by Clinton, with the remainder being pre-vetted questions. My heart sank when I saw what appeared to be some Powerpoint slides ready and waiting as I entered the hall, but fortunately he didn’t use the projector. He appeared to being using some notes, which was a surprise, but they didn’t intrude too much into the presentation. He was a clear orator, and delivered plenty of soundbite-worthy phrases - his eloquence and fluency wasn’t quite up to the standard of a legend, however. [...]
Hmm. In my experience, slide decks are typically used for offline communication because a 'presentation' has already been constructed, and sending them round is the easiest method. So I don't think the reason they are used (typically) is because they are good at communicating what needs to be said. We can disagree on whether we do find them effective in practice - in my experience, the main problem is they lack a presenter (if the slides say everything, why was there a presenter in the first place? If they don't, one needs to be supplied with them!) Having said that, the oft-stated alternative is a Word document (or similar) which isn't really designed for on-screen presentation either (it's really a print-centric medium, quick DTP if you like). So maybe there is room for something new here. Nevertheless, I'd encourage anyone to read Tufte's essay - what he says is not so much about using these slide decks offline, but use of Powerpoint online - i.e. for its original design purpose in giving presentations. His comments are strong, and I'm sure there is from for more compromise than he suggests (after all, tools can be abused or used well), but generally his arguments resonate well with me after one too many bad Powerpoint slides! His book 'The Visual Display of Quantitative Information' is also a classic, and well worth reading. It's refreshment when you've had 'graphic designer' overload.
Interesting. Powerpoint presentations were never designed to be a replacement for "proper" documents (reports etc), but I think condemning Powerpoint used in this context out of hand is also rather premature. Sure, the SNR can be low, but I have found that when a technical message needs to be conveyed to a large number of busy individuals, sending round a Powerpoint 'deck' rally can be the best way. A 10-slide presentation is much more likely to be viewed than a 2 page written report is to be read (I'd contend) and the medium can be very effective at informing the reader quickly. Perhaps we need a better dedicated product for this communication than Powerpoint, which is really being beaten into submission for this purpose...