Former Defense Secretary General James Mattis famously said, "PowerPoint makes us stupid." Like many among today's top military brass, he sees our culture's addiction to PowerPoint as a threat to the efficiency and effectiveness of our armed forces.

Similarly, many CEOs have banned PowerPoint from their meetings, including Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Twitter's Jack Dorsey, LinkedIn's Jeff Weiner, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, and the late Steve Jobs.

Smart leaders hate PowerPoint because business presentations straitjacket meetings into a slow-moving linear direction. This discourages conversation and discussion, turning the other attendees into passive chair potatoes. PowerPoint--when used as designed--reduces attention, understanding, and, worst of all, retention.

PowerPoint presentations are even worse when presenters try to make their boring presentation interesting by adding bells and whistles, cheesy stock photos, cheap animations, and various multimedia gee-gaws. The insulting assumption is that your co-workers are like toddlers whose attention can be captured only by a dangling flashy objects.

It's time to follow suit of the generals and billionaire CEOs and get out of the PowerPoint trap. But how? PowerPoint has become so ingrained into our day-to-day business activities that it seems impossible to function without it.

In fact, before 1990, nobody used PowerPoint and business presentations were consequently rare to non-existent. As a result, meetings were shorter and more to the point, with more discussion and better decisions,

How did companies get along without PowerPoint? They used three different meeting tools built around the types of business meetings: 1) decision/discussions, 2) training sessions, and 3) public addresses, Here are the techniques that work better than PowerPoint for each meeting type.

1. If you need to discuss and decide, use a briefing document.

Hone your thoughts and simplify your messages into a short, hard-copy document. Hand out paper copies at the beginning of the meeting and have everyone read the document. Then open the floor for discussion.

Briefing documents are better than presentations when you're driving toward a decision or consensus because a briefing document:

  1. Forces presenters to communicate with complete thoughts rather than mere outlines.
  2. Makes certain everyone is literally on the same page during the ensuing discussion.
  3. Reduces the overall time spent in a meeting by 50 to 80 percent.
  4. Provides the basis for an edited email describing the meeting and its results.

If the idea of kicking off a meeting with up to 10 minutes of silence strikes you as odd, you're not alone. The first time I read about this practice it immediately conjured up images of a library or study hall, two of the last forums I would equate with meeting productivity. However, after the first few times you try it, not only won't it be awkward -- it will be welcome. This is particularly true when meetings end early with participants agreeing it was time well spent.

Quick tip The ideal briefing document is a single page. In a previous column, I provided a simple template and an example.

Sales pitches and investor pitches are a special case because you don't have control of the format of the meeting. When pitching, you'll probably need to communicate in whatever manner the customer deems appropriate. If the customer doesn't get the idea of the briefing document concept, don't go there.

If the customer expects a presentation, distribute a sales proposal before the meeting, keep your slides to the barest minimum, and keep it simple: 1) "Here's where you are," 2) "Here's where you want to be," 3) "Here's how to get you there," and 4) "Next steps." The less your pitch is like a standard presentation, the more likely it is that you'll make the sale.

2. If you must instruct or train, create interactive experiences.

Rather than a mere outline, create an experience that allows your audience to participate in the learning process. While it's certainly possible to use presentation software to display materials, standard presentations are boring and forgettable.

If you want people to remember what they've learned, you'll do much better with traditional classroom materials--workbooks, easel pads, whiteboards, etc. To ensure that your audience learns and retains, you'll need to get your audience involved and not turn them into passive viewers. 

Most important of all, you want the audience to take notes with pen and paper, because the action of physically writing something alters your brain structure so that you remember what you've learned.

Without notetaking, most instruction is in-one-ear-and-out-the-other. Audiences retain next to nothing when just listening to a talking head, especially when the talking head is running interference for words on a screen behind them. Presentations are not teaching tools; they're sleep aids.

Nevertheless, when I suggest going back to older technology, some techies think I'm nuts: "Do you expect us to redraw every diagram on a white board!?"

Well, yes, because using traditional tools makes you a better teacher, according to a recent article on NPR.org:

"The main advantage of forgoing PowerPoint is that it forces both the speaker and the listener to pay attention," says John Paul Chou, an assistant professor of physics at Rutgers University who recently presented at one of the Fermilab forums. With PowerPoint, he says, it's "easier to let your mind go on autopilot, and you start to lose focus more easily." He points out that physicists often have a lot of graphs and data to share, and with access to just a whiteboard, he has to be much more selective about what to present. He also explains that he has to make sure his audience is following his train of thought -- he can't just advance to the next slide anymore. "It forces you to be a better teacher as well as making better students," he says.

Quick tip Start your course by asking the audience what they expect to learn, record those expectations on an easel pad, hang the pages around the room, and use them as touchstones as you work through the material.

3. If you want to entertain or inspire, give a speech.

If you're speaking to a large group that's not expected to participate in an interactive discussion, you should prepare (and rehearse) a speech rather than wing it with a presentation. Typical examples here are keynotes, all-employee meetings, and product announcements.

The challenge in these situations is to create positive emotions in your audience. You want your audience to connect with you--and you want to connect with your audience. Anything you put on a screen behind you (other than projection of you) is a distraction from that rapport-building process.

This is not to say that you absolutely can't project something onto the screen. If there's an image that the audience absolutely must see to make sense of your speech, go ahead and put it up. Just remember that distracting the audience with visual information that's not you is counterproductive.

Product announcements are a special case. While you don't want to give a presentation (which will bore everybody), you will probably need to show images of the product. Indeed, Steve Jobs's product announcements--the gold standard here--used product images. He put a few bullet points next to the product shots.

But Jobs never gave a presentation. He gave a speech about products that he spotlighted on the screen. Different animal entirely. 

Quick tip If you're giving a speech, find role models, like TED Talks and other types of speeches that have gotten huge traffic on YouTube. You'll notice at once that they use graphics very sparingly, and never in the standard business-presentation bullet-point format.

Needless to say, briefing documents, interactive exercises, and speeches require more work on your part than throwing together a presentation. These communications methods force you to hone and polish your thoughts into something that meaningful and complete--and thereby more respectful of your audience's time and energy.

That's the point that Steve Jobs was making when he famously said: "People who know what they are talking about don't need PowerPoint." If you truly know what you're talking about, you won't take the lazy way out (for you) and simply do a presentation. Do the job right and your audience will love you for it.

Published on: Feb 3, 2020
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