How IT Can Fix A 'Death By PowerPoint' Presentation Problem

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IT departments today have many well-defined responsibilities. But what about helping business users with not just the technical side but also the creative elements of their PowerPoint decks and presentations?

While that may seem a tad outside IT's traditional jurisdiction, Forrester Research analyst Sheri McLeish contends that IT has a significant role to play: IT and knowledge management staffers have a responsibility to "teach design principles, educate workers on content restrictions, and provide visual resources will improve the accuracy and quality of information workers' everyday presentations," McLeish writes in a recent report, IT's Role In Creating Better Presentations.

[ Read about The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs and 5 Ways to Ruin Your Next Presentation ]

For sure, PPT decks are a potential treasure trove of unwanted corporate data leakage. Presentation documents (MS's PowerPoint or Apple's Keynote) can contain a wide variety of sensitive data or otherwise highly valuable intellectual property. How'd you like your competitors being able to Google for your 2011 strategy or sales forecasts? (BTW: Simply putting "Confidential" at the bottom of each slide does not make a document secure.)

And, of course, most of us (save for, perhaps, his highness Steve Jobs) could use some help with the content and quality of our slide decks. "While professionally produced presentations might represent the corporate brand with pride, most PowerPoint decks produced by normal people miss that mark," McLeish writes.

But is what she terms "visual literacy" a skill which IT can actually assist users? Yes, she claims.

"The payoff may not be saving lives," McLeish writes, "but it will certainly come in the form of better information exchange and ultimately a better experience for employees and even customers."

Why People Struggle with Presentations

The indisputable evidence that most presenters are not adept at envisioning, creating and giving presentations is seen every day in the faces of thousands of bored audience members across corporate America.

Why is that so? McLeish cites several reasons.

First up, most information workers (or iWorkers, in Forrester parlance) have less expertise with presentation software than other productivity applications (e-mail or Excel), and it shows in the disappointing results. Secondly, iWorkers are "visually illiterate"--they have a general sense of what makes good visuals, but "consuming visual information is much easier than creating it," she notes.

Next, due to the templated, prepackaged nature of PPT and Keynote software packages, "people start thinking in the structured canned formats, in bullet points, rather than in ideas," McLeish writes. And lastly, iWorkers rely too much on the work of others (which brings in "misuse of content" and DLP risks).

How IT Can Help

Like many "treatment" programs, the first step to remedying a presentation problem is admitting you need help. Once users realize they need assistance and stop blaming the software ("It's not my fault, it's PowerPoint's!"), then IT leaders can step in and recommend various treatment steps. (Can you just imagine preparing a PPT presentation for a meeting about presentations? Gulp.)

"Instead of just supplying tools," McLeish advises, "these IT professionals can improve the overall quality of the presentations in their firms." Her suggestions:

Improve Visual Literacy. McLeish notes that "proven techniques from experts like Edward Tufte and Garr Reynolds are probably new to most iWorkers whose subject matter expertise lies elsewhere." IT leaders can introduce users to simple techniques for improving visual literacy, like Tufte's "eliminate chart junk" to simplify drawings and Reynolds' "don't create slideuments" to keep presentations from become visually unappealing handouts.

Remind iWorkers that the ideas come first. "It may be that a pen and paper or whiteboard is a better place to start thinking about information visually," McLeish writes. "And an image may be more powerful and memorable than a bullet list."

Provide Collaboration Tools for Content Development and Slide Management. Collaboration strategies focus on increasing iWorker efficiency, reusability of knowledge artifacts, and managing governance, risk, compliance, security, and privacy, McLeish writes. "iWorkers developing content for presentations benefit from collaboration tools that help them find relevant information that's up to date and accurate."

Increase Access and Use of Web-Based Tools. The Web is, of course, a never-ending resource for presentation materials and delivery. Web conferencing tools, for example, make it easy to deliver a slide deck, augmenting audio conferences, she notes.

In addition, "SaaS presentation solutions like Slide Rocket provide slide libraries, measurement tools, and an online marketplace to buy stock photography, audio, animations, or locate services," McLeish writes. "Web-based presentation resources can also jump-start creative juices by offering tips, best practices, and communities. And upgrade to the latest software versions to get the benefits of improved rendering and graphics."

Provide Guidelines for Content Use and Security. IT managers have to ensure that those iWorkers creating the presentations understand how to appropriately use and cite external content "as well as the consequences of misuse or inadvertent exposure of confidential company information," McLeish stresses. "Legal and IT pros can help inform policies around use of third-party content and measures that may be needed to ensure protection of company secrets."

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This story, "How IT Can Fix A 'Death By PowerPoint' Presentation Problem" was originally published by CIO.

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