A World Made In PowerPoint

It’s easy to hate on the slideshow computer program, but since it first arrived to workplaces 35 years ago, it has helped make communication more equitable

Published in The Globe and Mail on September 2, 2022

In Sweden, they speak Swedish. In Japan, they speak Japanese. And in the office, they speak PowerPoint.

Does this statement add insult to the injury of summer’s impending end? Russell Davies, a British writer and marketer, says it should not. On the contrary, he argues that in the 35 years since the slide-making computer program first shipped, it has clarified thinking, shortened meetings, democratized the modern workplace and thus added to the sum total of human happiness.

Not that Microsoft deserves all the credit; the same goes for Keynote, Slides, Prezi and every other program that has followed PowerPoint down the slide of slides.

“Maybe the best presentation in the world isn’t as good as the best speech in the world,” Mr. Davies said in an interview. “Maybe me standing up and presenting the Q3 results isn’t as good as ‘to be or not to be.’ But the average PowerPoint presentation is far better than the average extemporaneous speech.”

Mr. Davies recently published Everything I Know About Life I Learned From PowerPoint, and its 262 cleverly designed pages suggest he has learned a fair bit.

He began his career in the late 1980s, when presentations were generally done on overhead projectors, and he proudly declares himself the first person he knew who could put an image into a digital slide.

His interest in PowerPoint made him a curiosity, “like your uncle who collects pottery owls.” That led to his unofficial role as Britain’s go-to expert on the software, which is another way of saying friends would send him every media mention of PowerPoint. He began to notice a theme.

“Someone, somewhere is almost always writing an article called ‘Death by PowerPoint,’” he said. “It was an easy target when you couldn’t think of a subject for your weekly column. And people with a platform seemed desperately keen to hate on PowerPoint.”

Which led Mr. Davies to connect the bullet points: The people who actively despise this presentation software are the people who don’t need it.

The emperor has no slides

Journalists, cultural critics, academics and CEOs are all people who are “good at the sort of long, dense, performatively literate material that got them where they are today,” Mr. Davies writes in his book. And, more often than not, these people are eloquent white males who already command the room.

In 2004, Jeff Bezos famously banned PowerPoint from all executive meetings at Amazon because, as he said in an e-mail to employees, it gave “permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.” Instead, presenters must prepare six-page memos that all meeting attendees spend the first half-hour silently reading.

This is now hailed as that One Weird Trick that helped Amazon take over the world, and there is certainly some validity to that notion. A deeply researched document ha its advantages – especially if you’re the boss. If everyone’s got the document in hand, you don’t have to cede the floor or wait through an underling’s meandering. You can run the discussion. Mr. Davies’s take is that meetings are about power, and that banning PowerPoint ensures power stays at the top.

Bezos-style critiques of PowerPoint were there from the start. In Sweating Bullets: Notes About Inventing PowerPoint, Robert Gaskins recalls encountering this bias while pitching his idea in the 1980s. The people whose money he needed didn’t need to make presentations. “They were professional consumers of presentations and demonstrations; and so they hadn’t experienced those daily frustrations. For them, the presentations just always appeared, apparently effortlessly,” he writes.

Back then, the effort was considerable: Presentations were made with overheads if you were lucky, but often with 35-millimeter slides laboriously prepared by a graphics-service department. And so the Power in PowerPoint – a name that came to Mr. Gaskins in the shower, naturally – was short not for powerful but for empowerment. And with that empowerment comes a certain sort of corporate creative fulfilment.

“In many organizational lives, PowerPoint is where the creativity and satisfaction sits,” Mr. Davies writes. “Not the big creativity of architects and corporate art but the small, everyday folk creativity we get from handicraft and crosswords and a tiny job well done.”

The irony is that while PowerPoints are used in the most buttoned-down arena imaginable, they’re untethered by copyright rules or norms. Anything goes in a PowerPoint presentation: memes, GIFs, New Yorker cartoons, pictures of your kids. It’s a mashup culture where sampling is encouraged, especially if it gets a laugh.

Should anything go, though? Wouldn’t it be nice if there were rules baked into the software so no one could use, say, canary-yellow eight-point Comic Sans on a beige screen?

Mr. Gaskins, the creator of it all, vehemently disagrees.

“I always rejected not only such ideas, but even any discussion of them,” he recalls. “I would cut off debate by repeating Thoreau: ‘I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad.’”

In this response you can see the same rationale that Silicon Valley uses to abdicate responsibility for the effects of its creations. Though, to be fair to Mr. Gaskins, he doesn’t propose ignoring the issue entirely: “There was really no fix for bad presentations except education of the users,” he writes.

Mr. Gaskins notes that critics “thought that the unwashed masses of presenters should be prevented from making ugly slides and that the reviewer knew which slides were ugly, but I was sure they were wrong.”

Our PowerPoints, ourselves

The world PowerPoint has made is the result of giving humans a powerful, versatile tool and standing back. From this stems the truism that “if you want to understand an organization, ask to see the PowerPoint,” which can arguably be extended to all civilization. Each slide is a thin slice of the crooked timber of humanity, showing that who we are is occasionally incomprehensible. When you look at our collective PowerPoint output, you see hubris, ingenuity and occasional flashes of clarity.

Start with hubris, as defined by the U.S. military, an organization infamous for its impossibly complex slides. In 2010, General Stanley McChrystal, commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, was shown a slide depicting the occupied country’s many power relationships in 13 headings, eight colours and a spaghetti tangle of more than 100 arrows.

“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” Gen. McChrystal said then, a remark that was seized upon as proof of the Pentagon’s overreliance on PowerPoint, but that now seems like clumsy foreshadowing of the war’s outcome.

“Some problems are not bulletizable,” General H.R. McMaster told The New York Times, in one of the most inadvertently brilliant statements ever uttered by a professional soldier. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems like the general bulletized the messenger.

Then there’s ingenuity, as demonstrated in Mr. Davies’s example: “a certain large Japanese car company” that imposed a strict three-slide limit on all presentations. The result? Slides stuffed with so much content each one was functionally illegible and thus took 30 minutes to present. Put people into a rectangle and they’ll find an interesting way out.

That’s one positive thing virtual schooling has given our children, at least in my home: treasure maps, short stories, birthday cards, Nerf gun battle plans – all made from within the familiar confines of Google Slides.

And ideally, there’s simplicity, exemplified by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The odds of a notably dull politician using formal presentation software (Keynote, in this case) to create a popular, Oscar-winning film were vanishingly small, but Mr. Gore did it with big, simple, powerful slides. The designer Nancy Duarte helped him along his “personal communication transformation,” and she summed up the formula in her book Slide:ology: “He passionately knows his content, his slides add value to his story, and he is comfortable in his delivery.”

Easy, right?

Make it big, keep it short, have a point

So if, as Robert Gaskins says, the users just need education, what should they (we) be taught? In three words: Use fewer words.

And don’t use PowerPoint when you should be using Word. There are some situations that call for a presentation, other situations that call for a document, and very few situations that call for an ungainly hybrid of the two. Ms. Duarte calls these hybrids slideuments, and puts the dividing line between slide and document at 75 words. Once you’ve breached this number, distribute the document ahead of the meeting. If it’s around 50 words, you’ve got a teleprompter. You’ll be reading the slide and ignoring the room.

If PowerPoint is, as Mr. Davies writes, a Swiss Army knife for the mind, then slideuments are like using that multipurpose tool as a chef’s knife in a restaurant kitchen: It’ll work but it’ll hurt.

As for the perils of unreadable type, anyone presenting a pitch deck would be wise to follow tech guru Guy Kawasaki’s advice: “Divide the oldest investor’s age by two, and use that font size.” Or, as Ms. Duarte writes, “If you are consistently reducing your point size to under 24 and using third-level bullets, you have officially created a document and not a slide.”

Then there’s the use of dramatic quotes, the drama of which is reduced by how often the same ones show up. The familiar quotations are a bit too familiar. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to put George Santayana’s line about it in every presentation. William Gibson’s “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed” is in fact pretty evenly distributed among big-idea PowerPoints, Mr. Davies jokes.

He offers instead this line from Teller, of the magician duo Penn & Teller: “Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.”

Control the slide flow yourself if at all possible. Nothing shows you’re not in control of the room like the words “next slide, please.” Mr. Davies went so far as to invent a simple device he called the the Big Red Button to advance his slides on stages where laptops were prohibited – anything to avoid barking orders at the desk jockey. “It’s like a comedian having to say ‘punchline, please,’” he writes.

Finally, don’t interrupt, especially if you’re the boss. A “deckade,” in the technologist Paul Ford’s recent coining, is “the time spent watching someone make a live presentation on Zoom or Google Meet.” It can be agonizing to listen to other people fumble through; do it anyway.

This is Mr. Davies’s singular piece of advice for anyone with the power to set their organization’s rules on presentations: Be more patient.

“Particularly if they’re the most junior, most stumbling person in the room giving the worst presentation you’ve ever seen, you should sit patiently and listen and encourage them to talk,” Mr. Davies told me. “Because the most enormous problem in organizations is people at the top not hearing what’s going on at the bottom.”

A good presenting culture is a good listening culture, he argues, and PowerPoint is a remarkably effective tool for building that culture.

The promise and the peril of this ubiquitous piece of software are, in Mr. Davies’s telling, one and the same: “It’s training wheels for public speaking. It gets us up and running. PowerPoint makes presenting seem possible for people who aren’t brimming with the confidence of privilege.”