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Blunt Instrument or Power Tool?

PowerPoint can support clear thinking but can't replace it

May 2010

As PowerPoint embeds itself in businesses worldwide, debate continues over the slide-show software's influence. The latest flare-up: "We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint," an April 2010 New York Times article describing the ubiquity of PowerPoint among military decision-makers – and their brewing dissatisfaction with it. A platoon leader bemoans how "making PowerPoint slides" dominates his life; a Marine commander declares, "PowerPoint makes us stupid."

We sympathize with any organization that finds itself devoting significant resources to PowerPoint. As communications advisors, we've spent countless hours wrestling with the software ourselves! But we take issue with the idea of PowerPoint's inherent malevolence. PowerPoint is a tool, and as with any tool, the onus is on the user to know its limitations and use it to its best advantage.

Perceptions of PowerPoint run along a spectrum. At one extreme are firm detractors like information-design guru Edward Tufte, who says PowerPoint should never be used, because it dangerously oversimplifies mission-critical information. At the other extreme is the business community, where, for better or worse, PowerPoint is the default pitch medium. Somewhere in the middle is Farhad Manjoo, technology columnist for Slate magazine; in a rejoinder to the Times piece, he argues that slides can be compelling in live settings but that PowerPoint should be used very sparingly, and not for standalone documents.

What's missing from the debate is an acknowledgement of the way PowerPoint is actually used in business: occasionally as slide-show software, yes, but more often as document-creation software. Since many businesspeople use PowerPoint not just for slide shows but also to create their pitch documents – including briefing decks sent ahead of a meeting or left behind afterward – we must consider how best to harness the application's capabilities to reinforce content.

We agree with many criticisms of the software. PowerPoint's overreliance on bullets encourages shortcuts and often leads to whole decks that read like speaker notes. And PowerPoint is indeed a poor forum for presenting deep, rich sets of data – even though businesspeople routinely shoehorn dense spreadsheets onto their slides. If the font used in a table is too small, it probably belongs in an Excel file, not PowerPoint.

Despite its limitations, there's a lot PowerPoint does well. While it isn't the right forum for deep research or complex findings, the slide format – which in business predates PowerPoint by decades – is an effective tool for summarizing and persuading. Bullets are helpful for crystallizing messages, as long as they are accompanied by context-setting, message-driven titles. Slides can be an engaging complement to a speech or formal presentation, provided they are summarizing or illustrating, not merely repeating, the speaker's words. Data can be compelling in PowerPoint when it is graphed to show a trend or charted to highlight key points.

In short, PowerPoint shouldn't stand alone – it is a supplement to richer analysis and more detailed data. In medical or academic settings, for example, PowerPoint is now used extensively, to topline data-rich, years-long studies or doctoral dissertations. In business settings, PowerPoint can serve the same function: marshaling a range of facts and data points to frame discussion, summarize findings, and motivate action.

PowerPoint is just one tool in the businessperson's toolbox, and it needs to be used judiciously and never by itself. As a précis of one's recommendations or the crux of the pitch, however, it can be a powerful persuader.

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