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Has PowerPoint Made Us Stupid?

Recently I sat through another firm’s presentation at a client offsite and realized by the end of the session that I had spent 20 minutes admiring their slides. The presentation template had nicely rounded text boxes in pleasing pastels and clean, elegant fonts. The text was minimal and uncluttered. What was the content? Um…. I’ll get back to you. 

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” said General James Mattis, the Joint Forces commander in Afghanistan, in famously dismissing the spaghetti-bowl slide featured at a military conference. He was referring not to the template envy that distracted me, but to the constant pressure to reduce complex information, thinking and relationships into bullets and flowcharts. Worse, according to the General, it fools us into thinking we understand what we actually haven’t begun to grasp.

War is hell, right? We all struggle with the packaging of information and ideas, particularly those of us in PR. And there are times when packaging trumps substance, or when a complicated, but worthwhile recommendation is lost because it can’t be reduced to ten slides or less. In our zeal to compress research and present content in ways that are easily digestible and esthetically pleasing, we sometimes forget our mission.

But the enemy isn’t just PowerPoint. For me, it’s about the digital age. Who has time to mine for what’s not already obvious at a glance? More importantly, who has the sustained concentration to spend more than a few minutes on a memo or a plan? It’s no wonder that I’m calling for ever more succinct memos, slimmer decks, and more streamlined flow charts.

Add in the ubiquity of multimedia technology and our always-on culture, coupled with the rise of social media, and it’s easy to think we’re moving towards some sort of “post literate” era. Writer Gary Shteyngart describes a post-literate society in his excellent “Super Sad True Love Story,” a satire about a dystopian future in which reading and writing are no longer necessary and rarely done. 

But I’m not really worried about the death of literacy, or of intellects clouded by simplistic software templates. It’s more about the failure to look below the surface, to acknowledge complexity, and to dig more deeply for the fresh creative concept. Because, as important as it is for us to package and promote our ideas, it’s our thinking that clients really value. Not our slides.

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Comments

  1. AngieB

    So true! I keep swaring that I won’t use Powerpoint again, but I haven’t found good alternatives. Do we dare just talk?

  2. Dorothy Crenshaw

    It’s also true that slides are a crutch. Sometimes I think we’d be better off just speaking. I worked with somjeone once who spoke in a very compelling, hushed voice, and who was frighteningly brilliant, and he could pull it off. But it is scary if you don’t know your audience, or if it’s a very formal presentation. Visuals are expected…which is why it might pay to occasionally break the rules.

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