It's no secret that the former Apple CEO was no fan of PowerPoint, famously saying that "People who know what they're talking about don't need PowerPoint." Based upon some of the responses that I've gotten from my previous posts on PowerPoint, though, there seems to be some confusion about the nature of that dislike. 

The confusion stems, I think, from the fact that Jobs's' product announcements used presentation graphics, presumably using Apple's own product Keynote. The easy assumption, therefore, is that Jobs simply preferred his own company's product over that of a competitive product.

That's a reasonable assumption, but let's look at what he really said in context and then how and when Jobs used presentation graphics. Here's the full quote:

"I hate the way people use slide presentations instead of thinking. People confront problems by creating presentations. I want them to engage, to hash things out at the table, rather than show a bunch of slides. People who know what they're talking about don't need PowerPoint."

There's a lot to unpack there, so bear with me.

Jobs wasn't referring to presentation graphics used during televised events. As I noted in a previous column product announcements are a special case anyway, because you need to show product images. What Jobs was clearly referring to was by far the most common use of slide decks post-PowerPoint: as a tool for running internal meetings.

Jobs wanted meetings to be interactive, to have people "hash things out" as part of a creative process. For this to happen in an intelligent manner, people in a meeting must be actively involved. Show a slide deck, however, puts everyone but the presenter into a passive state, which delays discussion to the end of presentation.

This is true even if the presentation is fully-thought out. An inordinate amount of time--often the entire meeting--can be consumed with one person's ideas gradually unfolding. This is horribly inefficient, again, even when the presenter has complete ideas to communicate. Unfortunately, that's not always, or even not often, the case.

But what usually happens is that the person running the meeting has used PowerPoint (or Keynote or any other presentation graphic program) because that's the easiest way to slap down. That's why presenters end up reading their slides so often. They're really not prepared and so they're using the slides as a crush to remember what they wanted to say.

Jobs was born long enough ago to know what it was like before presentations became so easy to produce. Back before the late 1980s--the period when Jobs did some of his most groundbreaking work--presentation graphics were entirely limited to, well, large public events like product announcement.

This was a simple practical matter--the only way to create high-quality presentation graphics was a photographic slide deck. Internal meetings and discussions more typically used white boards and transparencies (which were usually hand-drawn) and briefing documents.

White boards and transparencies are, of course, interactive in a "let's talk this through" way, while briefing documents, because they demand the writing of full sentences and paragraphs, require the writer to think the ideas through. Which is not the case with slide decks.

If I interpret the quote correctly, Steve Jobs wanted presentation graphics (regardless of how created and displayed) to be limited to situations where somebody was presenting to a large audience and not used as general tool for running regular day-to-day meetings.

Just for perspective, here are what some other famous CEOs had to say about PowerPoint (and, by PowerPoint, I suspect that they mean slide decks, regardless of the program used to generate the deck.):

"There is no presentation. It's important to stay vigilant on this point as most people who prepared the materials will reflexively begin presenting... With the presentation eliminated, the meeting can now be exclusively focused on generating a valuable discourse: Providing shared context, diving deeper on particularly cogent data and insights, and perhaps most importantly, having a meaningful debate."

"As soon as you get to that space where you actually have something to play with and something tangible, that's when the real learning happens. Get out of Keynote, get out of PowerPoint, and just start building and start showing it off to people."

"The mode of Microsoft meetings used to be: You come with something we haven't seen in a slide deck or presentation. You deliver the presentation. You probably take what I will call 'the long and winding road.' You take the listener through your path of discovery and exploration, and you arrive at a conclusion. I decided that's not what I want to do anymore. I don't think it's efficient. So most meetings nowadays, you send me the materials and I read them in advance."

"Well structured, narrative text is what we're after rather than just text. If someone builds a list of bullet points in word, that would be just as bad as powerpoint. The reason writing a 4 page memo is harder than 'writing' a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what's more important than what, and how things are related. Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the innerconnectedness of ideas."

If you're interested in alternatives to presentations in different types of meetings, here are three smarter alternatives.

Note: an early draft of this column accidentally posted earlier this morning. I apologize for any inconvenience this might have caused.

Published on: Feb 5, 2020
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