Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Does Robert Mugabe use Powerpoint?

I think most people will agree that Robert Mugabe is a terrible dictator who has scant disregard for the people he is supposed to be serving. The same goes for the likes of Stalin, Hitler, Idi Amin etc. That being said, I think most people will also agree that one of the reasons of their rise to power was specifically their ability to influence people. In other words

People listen[ed] to them, and they're not using Powerpoint

My experience is that every time someone want to say something to more than one person, there has to be a Powerpoint presentation to go along with it. And more often than not, this attempt at communication fails miserably, or succeeds only in some rudimentary fashion. 

Some of the causes of these failures are:
  • People are reading the slides, so they're not listening to the speaker.
  • The presenter is reading the slides, so there is no connection with the audience.
  • The bullet-pointed slides are so mind-numbingly boring that the audience members have gone to their happy place or are thinking of what to cook/order/kill for dinner and of course, they're not listening.
In contrast, I'll mention two very successful entrepeneurs and their presentation styles: Steve Jobs (Apple, Pixar, General Motors?) and Elon Musk (PayPal, Tesla Motors, SpaceX). In business it is absolutely essential that you can effectively communicate your ideas to people. And when you audience is holding the purse strings, and you can't convince them of your business ideas, you're doomed to become a (perhaps very successful) hobbyist.

I went to a talk by Elon Musk on his company SpaceX a few months ago. The projector had been set up and the presentation was ready to proceed. The first slide was already on the screen, with text along the lines of "Elon Musk, SpaceX" with very nice picture of a rocket (on a Pacific island if I remember correctly). 

Elon Musk came in and talked a bit. After a few minutes he proceeded to questions, and these went on for more than an hour. The first slide was the only slide. Maybe the host created it when he realised there were no slides. "Are you crazy? No slides?! But how will you...."

The talk was very effective, he had communicated his points, and gave the audience exactly what they wanted, since they were asking him what they wanted to know!

The second example is Steve Jobs. I remember watching the first iPhone Keynote speech and how I got swept up in the presentation. It was a highly effective communication (helped by a great product). Let's look at some of the slides he used:

Do you see lots of bullet points? The last slide has the most text on it, but that slide is in the minority, and the bullets are actually very short. The first two slides had simple images, and minimal text, and I can assure you that people were listening to what he was saying!

Do you think the response would have been the same if his slides looked like this:

instead? I'm asleep already.

My highly opinionated advice for presentations would be:
  • Don't use PowerPoint/Keynote/[insert slide software here] to write your presentation. Decide what you want to say and how you want it to flow and only prepare your slides once you know the content of your presentation. 
  • Don't use your slides as notes, have seperate notes if you don't know the topic that well or need some backup information.
  • Don't read you slides.
  • Don't have lots of bullet points on each slide.
  • You don't need to use slides. Sometimes a white board is good enough, and in most cases it is probably better.
What do you think?


SimoneC said...

I was thinking about that exactly yesterday...

I'm not used to write my presentations writing the slides.
What I think is powerful is to write the main point of your message in the slides...

Maybe I will talk 5 minute about a specific topic but in the slides you will see only a statement or two...

Normally this techniques is good if you want to use the Vision as the only tool to convince people. (the perfect tool for sell an Apple product).
In the end it depends on what you want to say and who is your audience...try to explain a technical problem or a mathematical theorem without slide support...

Benjamin Nortier said...

Don't you think it would be better to explain a technical problem or mathematical theorem with a whiteboard or blackboard?

SimoneC said...

It depends if is important to show a step by step result or a final conclusion...

In the second case I would show something and I would explain it...

An other reason to use visual help is in the nature of people.

As you know there are people that you can convince speaking and people that you can convince showing them to be more effective you must use both the channel of communication

Immo H√ľneke said...

I know exactly what you're saying. I once went to a packed talk by Eric Raymond, the famous Open Source advocate. He came in without any slides or other visual aids and basically asked the audience what they wanted him to talk about! It's a great trick if you can do it, but you really have to know your subject very thoroughly.

Alistair Cockburn is another example of someone who has mastered his subject sufficiently (in his case, Use Cases) to be able to put his point across without slides.

I agree with Simonec (above) that different people are receptive to different styles of communication - some are more visually oriented, others more verbally - but research has clearly shown that addressing several of these communication styles simultaneously can be a distraction. That's why I can't stand most science programming on TV these days. Apart from The Sky At Night, Mythbusters and Brainiac, they all put arty-farty visuals and obtrusive "background" music into the programme, which gets in the way of understanding the message. In fact, my wife and I recently read the synopsis of a Horizon episode, which we had missed, in under 10 minutes on the BBC web site and got a far better understanding than we typically get from watching the 50-minute programme.

jamaal sibley said...

Coincidentally, I was reading "The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within" ( on the train to work this morning.

I almost always subvert powerpoint by pasting images into the slides, or I simply use irfanview and a series of .pngs.

One image to illustrate a general idea: possibly a more detailed chart than powerpoint is capable of producing, a giant portrait of the person who came up with the idea (idea with a face) or for the best presentations, cartoons that illustrate the idea and make people giggle a bit.