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.