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Take a Closer Look at PowerPoint

Which of these statements is true?

• PowerPoint is the most effective presentation graphics tool in the world.

• PowerPoint creates the worst presentations possible worldwide.

Both statements may be true, depending on people, situations, and skill levels. PowerPoint has legions of fans and supporters. But for every proponent there is at least one detractor.

Occasionally we see PowerPoint presentations that are excellent. They communicate well and are visually pleasing. In parallel we see numerous PowerPoint files that are totally boring, confusing or amateurish.

The reason for this apparent contradiction goes back to the very first development of PowerPoint in the 1980’s. Early developers apparently explored a range of options. Some wanted to develop the most technically sophisticated tool in the industry, and to build the broadest set of capabilities imaginable. Others wanted to provide a tool that was so simple and easy to use that virtually anyone could open it and produce a presentation. At the same time, all developers knew that they would have to maintain compatibility with other tools that would eventually comprise a full office suite.

Predictably, developers were forced to compromise, and build the tool that eventually evolved to PowerPoint as we know it today. As with all new products, it was impossible for developers to foresee the environment they would create.

PowerPoint today has become extremely successful with hundreds of millions of users. Many of those users however, simply type text bullets then format typefaces, backgrounds, and borders to deliver presentation slides. This usually produces ineffective slides that people are supposed to read while a speaker is talking. Others insert diagrams, tables and charts to summarize their ideas. Unfortunately, those visuals are typically so complex as to require several minutes for audience understanding.

Why do we see so many weak presentations like these? They are the result of a well-meaning development team that hatched a product more than 20 years ago to enable unskilled people to use high-value capabilities.

Despite the many “death-by-PowerPoint” materials seen every day, there are also excellent multi-media presentations that communicate, inform and entertain. In upcoming posts we’ll explore some of these techniques and how they make presenters effective.