“Is that any way to fight a war?”

“Am I mad that not one of the top three Democratic runners will commit to a complete pullout (from Iraq) by 2013.”

So started a fiery set of remarks by the legendary Helen Thomas, now 90 years old but still holding government officials and bureaucrats accountable for their actions. Speaking to the national convention of the Society of Professional Journalists, Thomas, who now reports for the Washington bureau of Hearst Newspapers, exuded an urgency when she spoke of the need for young journalists to question why we are in Iraq as this has now become the war they will inherit.

Thomas believes the administration is reporting the war stateside as an abstract numbers game — so many killed in an IED explosion or so many troops might be recalled following a surge of so many numbers of others. Thus, when she calls the Pentagon and ask for the number of Americans dead, the brass will give Thomas that figure. And when she asks for the number of soldiers wounded, they reluctantly give her those figures.

But when she asks for the number of Iraqi dead, she is told, “We don’t track them. They don’t count.” When Thomas asks for a rationale as to why they don’t count, and refuses to accept that as a reasonable answer, she is instructed to phone back.

Two hours later, Thomas reaches the same Pentagon spokesman. What, she repeats, is the rationale for not releasing the number of Iraqi dead? “Our policy is not to kill,” she’s told. “But if they resist, they don’t count.”

“Is that any way to fight a war?” she asks.

PowerPoint, How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways.

That’d be “zero.” Zip, nada, nothing, null.

Again, my apologies to the 3.5 people who might have read an abbreviated version of this anti-PowerPoint rant in the pages of Finance & Commerce, but I thought our portfolio covered miscommunication as well as communications.

Austin

“PowerPoint doesn’t kill brain cells, people kill brain cells.”

If I had a big enough bumper, that’s the sticker I’d put on it these days. Recently, I’ve sat through half a dozen PowerPoint presentations, each one more mind-killing than the last. The common elements include:

– Horrible graphics
– Lack of organization
– Ignorance of PowerPoint’s limitations
– Presentation styles from Hell

None of this is absolutely the fault of PowerPoint and its Microsoft masters any more than Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson decide where to point the business ends of their products, but they are unindicted co-conspirators in this crime spree. Unlike good software, which should make it easy to do your best, PowerPoint seems designed to make it easy to do your worst.

Everything, from the design templates to the limited tools for presenting information to the “auto-content wizard,” encourages sloppy thinking about what to present and unfortunate compromises about how to present it. Worst of all, it enables people who shouldn’t present a business card, much less critical business information, to delude themselves that their presentations are accomplishing something. They’re not.

Unfortunately, though, we’re not going to rid ourselves of PowerPoint any time soon. There are approximately a gazillion copies out there and, even more worrisome, our children are increasingly being taught with the damnable thing and are being encouraged to use it to present their work as well. Given, then, its reach into every corner of our lives (imagine your next family meeting punctuated with a PowerPoint presentation), here’s a couple of ways to make it less painful for all of us. Or, as my doctor said to me recently, “The easiest way for both of us to do this is…”

Graphics. Spend some money for a graphics designer to produce a few simple but pleasing templates to use throughout the organization. This will prevent the puce-and-lime color schemes, the oddball fonts and other quirks, it will allow the audience to focus on the content and it will save you and your people hours of time fiddling. Resist the urge to clutter them up with logos, tag lines and the like. Freshen them up every year or so.

Better yet, engage a designer from the very start of your work on a presentation in order to understand what you’re trying to convey and why. A good designer can find ways to visually present information on several levels.

Can’t afford a designer? Buy a book like Edward Tufte’s The Visual Presentation of Quantitative Information and read it. Better yet, read his monograph – The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint – on the harm PowerPoint does to critical thinking and delete the application from your hard drive before it can strike again.

Organize. A presentation is like a good speech or short story; it has a logical structure and a point. Before you open PowerPoint, outline – on paper – your purpose, the 2-4 key points you need to make in support of that purpose and the ancillary information that makes your points convincing. Once you’ve scrubbed this outline a couple of times, you’ll be more likely to create a presentation that actually does what you want.

Then, after you’ve got the basics of your presentation roughed in, compare the results to your original outline to make sure you haven’t wandered away from your goal. Be ruthless about staying focused.

Recognize the Limitations of PowerPoint. PowerPoint is very rigid and forces you to present information in little slide-sized dollops and it demands that the information be presented in a hierarchy of bullets, sub-bullets and on and on. Conclusions and other important information often wind up formatted into insignificance. This reflects how lots of people think but not necessarily how best to present information, particularly using this tool. Train yourself to reverse the information order and present the most important points as headlines and the other elements as supporting elements.

Also, PowerPoint is a very low-density medium for presenting information. While some people choose to think of this as a feature, it’s not. If you have complex or detailed information to present, recognize that PowerPoint probably isn’t the right tool for the job. Try other media like boards or handouts.

Presentation Skills. PowerPoint makes it easy for even the most simple-minded of us to give a presentation and we see evidence of that every day. Unfortunately, many presenters seem to think that presenting means reading…every…word…on…every …line…on…every…slide.

It’s not.

Not only is this the deadliest form of communication known to man (your heart gets so bored it falls asleep), it’s insulting because what it implies is that 1) the presenter is unfamiliar with the material and thus wasting the audience’s time, and 2) the presenter thinks the audience is too stupid to read and process the 20-40 words on the screen (about 10-15 seconds for the average reader) and must be read aloud to.

Presenting is about connecting to an audience, about informing them or persuading them or entertaining them (or all three). The visuals are there to supplement and enhance the delivery of the presentation. They are not the presentation itself any more than the wallpaper is the house.

The fix for this, of course, is to actually put in the hard work to develop a full presentation including what you plan to say, show or demonstrate to accompany the slides. Start it as an outline, expand it into a script, practice it out loud, internalize it.

Or…radical thought…do the whole thing without using PowerPoint. One of my clients recently told me that his board of directors had asked that the management team stop giving them PowerPoint presentations and instead just talk about the business. I’m sure some of the managers find this terrifying, but I think there’s a kernel of hope in this development; let’s have more exposure to people with enough grasp of their subject matter to simply converse without a presentation prosthetic to support them. If one company does it and then another and another, who knows? Maybe real communications will occur.

Wouldn’t that be something?

– Austin