Business Needs to Fire PowerPoint

Social media is where fingers usually point when critics lament the decline of reading and attention span.  And Facebook and Twitter definitely deserve their bad reputations as attention-span killers.  But in the business world, I think there is another culprit.  I think business needs to fire PowerPoint. 

As a middle manager, a lot of my job had to do with communicating, both up and down.  The people above me absolutely would not tolerate lengthy texts.  Whatever I had to say must be said in 2-3 PowerPoint slides and conveyed in a 30-minute meeting.  And, on this basis, executives made decisions about staffing, spending, and strategies. 

Working in that environment 40+ hours per week, for many years, conditioned me to think that the bullet-point style of communication, because it is efficient, is the best.  I’m starting to question that.  We are awash in information, but lacking in knowledge and wisdom.

Look, I get it: executives are really, really busy.  I agree that they should expect to receive proposals and reports in the format that they dictate.  Their precious time and mental resources shouldn’t be wasted on listening to an employee ramble or having to pick through his idiosyncratic presentation for the key information that they need.  And, a summary in graphic and/or bullet-point format can help to focus attention on the key points. 

Problems with PowerPoint

But there are problems with using PowerPoint exclusively in delivering reports or pitching ideas.

First, the brain doesn’t listen and read at the same time.  Your audience will either be reading the slides or listening to you speak, not both. 

Second, all too often, the winning idea is the one that had the most dazzling graphics and the coolest visuals.  Appearance wins out over content. 

Most important, executives make decisions that impact how millions of dollars are spent, what a company’s strategy will be in critical areas like information security, and – not incidentally – people’s employment and lives.  It’s not reasonable to assume that correct decisions on critical issues can be made on the basis of a 30-minute meeting and 3 slides.  When important decisions must be made, PowerPoint should be, at most, a starting point.  There is no substitute for additional background information and serious deliberation. 

In Aristotle’s Way, Edith Hall describes Aristotle’s 8 steps for making decisions.  The very first one is:  Don’t decide in haste.  Others include verifying the information you have, considering precedents, considering possible outcomes and their likelihoods, and taking into account the perspectives of all impacted parties.  Could you do that in 30 minutes, after looking at 3 pages of graphics?  Do you think anyone can? 

Finally, we do ourselves no favors by habituating ourselves to receiving information in 3-slide summaries.  The more you make decisions based on incomplete, summarized information, the more your capability to study and deliberate will decline.  Executives might be smarter, more self-disciplined and harder-working than the rest of us, but they are still mortal.  Faculties that they don’t use will deteriorate. 

What Amazon Does

Jeff Bezos has famously banned PowerPoint from Amazon’s meetings.  As Bezos put it in a 2012 interview, when you have to write your ideas in complete sentences and paragraphs, it forces you to think.  Yet, a 2011 study found that half of college students surveyed have never had to write more than 20 pages in a typical semester.  If you can’t write clearly, you probably can’t think clearly.  I would add that, if you can’t read anything more complicated that 3 pages of bullet points and graphics, you probably can’t think clearly. 

Alternatives to “Death by PowerPoint”

What is the solution then?  How can we provide business decisions makers with the deep background information that they need to make important decisions, without overwhelming them? 

One idea comes from the process that Amazon uses in place of PowerPoint.  Amazon workers with ideas to discuss must write a 4-6-page memo describing their idea in narrative form, and then defend it in follow-up discussions.  What if lower-level managers had to develop such a narrative and defend their ideas in front of a murder board of peers from related disciplines, before it ever got to an executive?  The members of the murder board would be required to read the narrative and have questions and objections prepared.  This allows managers at lower levels to practice the evaluation skills they will need if they move up the management ladder, and allows bad ideas to be trashed or improved before they reach busy executives. 

Do you have other ideas?  Great!  Just don’t try taking them to upper management with 3 PowerPoint slides.  PowerPoint needs to be fired – or at least demoted to a supporting role. 

Coming up next: This will be my last post on business topics. Next week, I will start posting about my novel in progress.

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