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Home > Blog > The Real Role of PowerPoint
Out of Our Minds
Friday, April 09, 2004 9:13 AM
The Real Role of PowerPoint
David Weinberger on Business

I spent yesterday consulting with a company whose salesforce is having trouble explaining exactly what its software does, a common problem with enterprise applications since software tends towards functionality sprawl in ways that, say, refrigerators and asphalt don't. Not to mention that this company's software is genuinely innovative.

The company's impulse is to address this need in the usual way: Build a PowerPoint 'deck' (sorry, 'deck' instead of 'slide set' still sounds unnatural to me) with the sort of corporate overview appropriate for an industry analyst. But, the deck a salesperson needs is, of course, quite different.


The rep isn't there to explain what the company is. She's there because the company has a particular problem. The overview slides that get the corporate mission just right and that explain the inexorable industry trends that have graced the company with the mantle of destiny really just get in the way. In fact, the best sales reps only break out the PowerPoints after making some deprecating remark about the folks in Marketing who think people will believe their pretty pictures.\n\nInstead, at yesterday's meeting we focused on what makes for a successful initial sales call: Listening to the customer's problem, understanding the customer's situation, and responding creatively with how your tool set can make things better (and, by the way, how it cannot). Then we tried out some 'chalk talks' that try to make sense of the array of tools and the 'problem space' (yech) those tools address. (Every tool implies a world, after all.)\n\nWe made progress, but we are inevitably going to be drawn back to designing PowerPoints, even though we understand that sales calls should only rarely use them. But we have to do them because the real role of the corporate PowerPoint deck is something else: It expresses the company myth. Even if no one outside the company sees it, The Deck tells the company who it is, what it does, what its world looks like, how it sounds and why it cares.\n\nPowerPoints are the primary way companies today create their founding myth. That myth is how they understand themselves. Ironically, they are about the worst possible way of communicating that myth to others.


15 comments

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Zach - 1/18/2005 8:52:56 PM
I agree with John: let's not scapegoat powerpoint.

There are bad movies out there, bad TV shows, bad magazines, and bad novels. It isn't the medium that should be blamed but the creators. Most of the time, a wordy, bullet-heavy slide implies the author doesn't have clarity on his message. Similarly, a rambling, poorly structured presentation implies confusion about the fundamental story that should be told.

I think we are shedding personal responsibility when we blame the tool.
Jonty - 9/2/2004 3:52:52 AM
The big problem I think is the use of bullet points. People use bullet points on the screen as their speaker notes. It would be more productive for them to use a few pictures and for them to learn the words.
Jonty - 9/2/2004 3:52:28 AM
The big problem I think s the use of bullet points. People use bullet points on the screen as their speaker notes. It would be more productive for them to use a few pictures and for them to learn the words.
Tony Ramos - 6/2/2004 1:21:10 PM
'The PowerPoint aesthetic of bullet points does not easily encourage the give-and-take of ideas, some of them messy and unformed. The opportunity here is to acknowledge that PowerPoint, like so many other computational technologies, is not just a tool but an evocative object that affects our habits of mind. We need to meet the challenge of using computers to develop the kinds of mind tools that will support the most appropriate and stimulating conversations possible..'

Excerpt from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge article 'PowerPoint, Robomanagers, and You: The Growing Intimacy of Technology,'
September 22, 2003. See http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item.jhtml?id=3683&t=technology
Sam Garst - 4/16/2004 12:27:27 PM
In 2003, I vowed to start writing letters to my friends... we're talking pen and paper. For 2004, I've been sending ppts to my friends. The response has been underwhelming. But I've really enjoying the frustration of trying to 'fit' my personal correspondence into such a lousy communication tool.
John Moore - 4/15/2004 9:38:43 AM
Well, let's not scapegoat Powerpoint. The real problem is people's tendency to confuse consistency of stimulus with consistency of response. They think that by Powerpointing a message, any message, they somehow powerfully control the response of anyone hearing it.

So they opt for long, turgid, wordy slides, all-embracing lists etc. Instead of going for short, provocative, sometimes mysterious images and ideas that stimulate curiosity and conversation.

I often present with Powerpoint as my back up... but I only call up a few of the many slides I've prepared, responding to the conversation I'm having with the audience. I'm not sure what myth that creates about me - I'm inclined to let the audience create that for themselves...
Yong Su Kim - 4/15/2004 12:14:38 AM
Maybe the problems with PowerPoint are caused by the inherent disconnect between marketing and sales. Marketing sees itself as the creator and enforcer of the consistent communication of the company's value proposition (myth) to the market and customers. What better way than to create PowerPoint so that everyone is singing from the same hymn book?

As you point out, a consistent value proposition isn't what gets customers to buy. The sales person's job is to understand the customer's need and adapt the value proposition to be in line with the customer's need. If Marketing truly understood this, it should be clear that a standard PowerPoint deck isn't really much use, even for internal communications and myth building.
Bill Seitz - 4/12/2004 10:57:13 AM
Another thought: if we agree that PowerPoint sets up a bad dynamic for dialogue between salesman and potential client, why do we think it's an OK way to structure communication with an employee?
Bill Seitz - 4/12/2004 9:41:39 AM
I agree with Trevor, PP is a veil to hide behind.

This can be consensual, making 'everyone' more comfortable. No eye contact necessary.

Or it can be a power thang, controlling the agenda, framing the dialog, etc.

Here's an idea: a PowerPoint-free month. Prohibit anyone from using PP for the whole month, internally and externally. Just to force people to try another mode of communication...
Trevor Cook - 4/12/2004 6:09:18 AM
I'm sure people think they are doing something powerful with ppt. Mostly what they are doing is avoiding the hard work and thought involved in communicating - I think this is especially true internally, where people resent anything that comes between them and the speaker. I wrote an article for the Australian Financial Review last year, Death by Slides http://trevorcook.typepad.com/weblog/2004/02/death_by_slides.html. I think ppt can work if it is done after the thought is done and not instead of it and if its kept to a minimum and presents visuals not text.
Carl Johnson - 4/10/2004 9:57:30 AM
David Ogilvie said of advertising jingles, 'If you have nothing to say, sing it!' I think the same is true with these presentations: 'If you have nothing to say, do a PowerPoint!' I want people to talk to me, not show me useless slides. I've got vacation pics of my own, and they don't have badly conceived bar graphs that don't show what the presenter thinks they show.
fouroboros - 4/9/2004 6:57:48 PM
'That myth is how they understand themselves. Ironically, they are about the worst possible way of communicating that myth to others.'

Awesome interpretation!

S-T-O-R-Y

PPT helps collect thoughts and structure a narrative...it confers substance symbolically, and everyone likes to feel like they're 'the Pros from Dover.'

But then, go out and find a pallet from the loading dock and spray paint the idea on that or do something else to mobilize metaphor.

Oddly--okay, actually not, it's purposeful, we're brandbuilding here--a company that sells to their clients with such self-possesion and enthusiasm for making their product relevant to the real world and the imagination can result in this:

'Ummm, I feel funny asking, but would you be willing to come in and talk to our sales people about your approach?'

'Why certainly, Jane. We're here to help.'

Drucker: The purpose of marketing is to make 'selling' unnecessary.
Cristian Vidmar - 4/9/2004 11:41:52 AM
What about videos? My thoughts and experience here: http://www.cristianvidmar.com/2004/04/09.html#a212
Jay Fienberg - 4/9/2004 11:11:10 AM
It's interesting to talk about PowerPoint as a tool for the ritual of myth making.

You could just say it is a tool of story telling, but the story always seems to involve the presenter's (or their company's) presumed (super) power fired off, as if from a gun pointed at the audience, in bullet points.

I am also thinking there is something about it that is like the archetype of 'the emperor's new clothes'--people fooled by the illusion of power and those who see right through it.

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