An increasing number of CEOs are banning PowerPoint presentations in favor of briefing documents, where meetings start with attendees reading a short, hard-copy "briefing document" that summarizes the issue to be discussed.

A couple of comments to my previous posts on the subject have pointed out that some very good communicators--notably Steve Jobs--have used PowerPoint to get their message across. Like so:

Obviously, that product announcement wouldn't have been nearly as effective if he had simply handed out a briefing document (in this case a press package) and then opened the floor for questions.

So, then, doesn't the fact that Jobs--admittedly one of the business world's best communicators--used PowerPoint (or a clone) should we be doing the same? Since we all want to be great communicators?

Uh, no.

What Jobs is doing in that video is a performance that was meant to be videoed and streamed. He used projected visuals to illustrate what he was talking about. What he was NOT doing was running a business meeting.

Most business meetings aren't (or shouldn't be) performances. On the contrary, most business meetings fall into one of three categories: 1) discussion, 2) brainstorming, or 3) training. They are (or should be) interactive and participatory, not performative.

In non-performative business meetings, PowerPoint is typically used to provide the information required to create meaningful interaction. Unfortunately, PowerPoint is a horribly inefficient and ineffective way to communicate that information. Here's why:

  1. PowerPoint communicates at the speed that the presenter talks. This is in contrast to a briefing document, which communicates at the speed that the attendees read. B
  2. PowerPoint presentations tend to consist of bulleted lists, which are boring. PowerPoint presenters often read those bullet lists aloud, which is insulting.
  3. PowerPoint presentations encourage fuzzy thinking, because presenters often try to riff on whatever vague outline they've managed to slap down into a set of slides.
  4. Presenting information simultaneously in multiple forms decreases rather than increases comprehension. (aka cognitive overload.)
  5. PowerPoint encourages one-way lecturing, rather than interaction between the presenter and the audience.

Putting aside business performances (announcements, speeches, pitches, etc.), it's always more efficient and effective to provide the required information in a stand-alone document rather than in a presentation. To understand why, let's look at the three types of (non-performative) business meetings:

1. Discussions

The purpose of a business discussion is to make certain that decision-makers are properly informed, hash out any problems or differences, and then reach some sort of decision. The informational challenge is to get everyone "on the same page" so that the discussion is brief and to the point.

PowerPoint is an ineffective way to lead a discussion because it draws out the process of getting everyone up to speed and makes the meeting prone to falling down rat-holes--discussions that are peripheral to the issue at hand.

By contrast, a briefing document, which is read at the beginning of the meeting, quickly gets everyone "on the same page."

2. Brainstorms

The purpose of a brainstorm is to spark new ideas. In this case, the informational challenge is to setting the stage so that the team knows what they're trying to accomplish by generating new ideas, as well as what's been tried previously.

As with discussion, PowerPoint is a poor choice because it draws out the process of getting everyone up to speed. Furthermore, because PowerPoint presentations are almost always boring, they tend to turn brainstorms into dreary brain-drizzles.

By contrast, a briefing document sets the stage as quickly as possible.

3. Training

Now here you'd think that PowerPoint would prove useful, since you're trying to transfer knowledge from an expert to the attendees. However, a training session is only effective if the attendees retain the information. And it turns out that lectures (with or with PowerPoint) do not increase retention.

According to most studies, people retain information best when they write it down themselves. People also retain information better when the training is interactive and participatory rather than a lecture.

For training, what's far more effective than PowerPoint is a hard-copy workbook that forces participants to, well, participate... if only by taking notes.

To summarize: if you're giving a performance (like Steve Jobs in a product announcement), you can use PowerPoint sparingly to add visual images that add depth to your performance. For interactive meetings, though, a briefing document is a far more effective way to communicate the information that's required to make the meeting work.