A common refrain among business people is, “PowerPoint sucks.” They don’t mean the slide presentation software itself, but rather the way too many presenters use it. They mean boring presentations. Bullet points that the presenter displays and then reads. Incomprehensible spreadsheet data. Charts with illegible labels. Presenters who say, “I know this will be hard to read in the back of the room, but…”
Death by PowerPoint?
The general opinion of business slide presentations is so low that a TEDx talk with “Death By PowerPoint” in its title has over three million views. Amazon lists multiple books with the same phrase in their titles.
With all that negativity, the idea that PowerPoint presentations could be so effective and so persuasive that the software is dangerous seems absurd. But that’s exactly why Jeff Bezos banned slide presentations from decision-making meetings at Amazon.
Why Amazon Banned PowerPoint
Although Amazon still uses slide presentations for some types of meetings, there are no slide decks at decision-making sessions. I recently spoke with Colin Bryar, author of Working Backwards and former Jeff Bezos “shadow.
Bryar explained that an executive using a slide deck to present a business idea like a new product initiative can skew the decision making process in several ways.
A project should go forward on its merits, not because the person pitching it is a good presenter. Bryar explained, “A charismatic speaker who has a so-so idea, or even a bad idea, can convince a group or an organization to go forward with that.”
Similarly, a boring or unskilled presenter might have a great idea but fail to gain support because he emphasized the wrong points the team didn’t pay close attention.
Of necessity, the amount of information that can be conveyed in a slide deck is limited. Financial data must be simplified to the extreme. Even a short paragraph of text seems impossibly long on a slide. The presenter has to fill in the gaps verbally, which also has limitations. Data that seems less important (or, sometimes, that doesn’t support the initiative) may be omitted.
The presenter controls the flow of the narrative in a slide presentation. The rest of the team mostly consumes the content passively until discussion begins. While it’s possible to interrupt to ask a question or discuss a point in more detail, many team members may be reluctant to disrupt the flow of the presenter. This is particularly true if the presenter is of higher status in the organization.
Bezos’s Solution to PowerPoint Persuasion
Once Jeff Bezos recognized that slide presentations didn’t always lead to optimal decisions, he decided to try using “narratives” – written documents that summarize all relevant information for those in attendance.
In keeping with Amazon’s emphasis on experimentation, narratives were initially an experiment that could be reversed. In fact, they worked well enough to become standard practice at the company.
“One of the best things that Amazon did”
The narrative approach has evolved into a six-page maximum document that everyone attending the meeting reads and digests before discussion begins. (No, presenters can’t use tiny fonts and narrow margins to meet the length limit!) While reading quietly to begin a meeting seems strange to newcomers, it ensures that everyone is working from the same base of information. By reading at their own pace, each attendee can focus on specific areas they think are important or that need discussion.
Not only does the written narrative eliminate presenter bias, it also allows much higher information density. “It conveys a lot more information in the same time, at least 10x,” says Bryar. He quotes Jeff Bezos as saying switching to narratives was “one of the best things that Amazon did.”
Amazon continues to use slide presentations for other kinds of meetings, particularly one-to-many sessions like “all hands” meetings.
Slides: Good, Bad, or Ugly?
Developing a new product line or exiting a geographic market, for example, are complex decisions that require assessing risks, opportunities and competing objectives. Meetings on topics like these require attendees to digest information, consider the issues thoughtfully, and ultimately make a decision. A narrative approach will lead to more rational, less biased decisions.
For other kinds of meetings, though, a persuasive slide deck can be a good thing. Sales presentations are one example – the objective is to move the customer to the next step. Other examples are communicating a new policy or updating a large group on company results.
If your intent is to persuade, don’t shy away from PowerPoint because of its “deadly” reputation. Communicating with simple visuals can make your points more memorable by using emotional imagery and easily understood graphic representations of data.
The mere presence of pictures can make your ideas more credible, research shows.
In the physical world, pliers are the tool of choice when you are trying to loosen a rusty nut. While you could use the same pliers to drive a nail into wood, the results won’t be very good. Similarly, PowerPoint can be highly effective, but only when employed properly.
This article first appeared in www.forbes.com
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