April 28, 2010, 8:00 AM — The New York Times has an article called We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint which reports on the extensive use of Microsoft's PowerPoint in the military and how some are complaining that (in the words of General James N. Mattis) "PowerPoint makes us stupid." The key complaints against PowerPoint are that you cannot reduce complex military issues down to a series of bullet points, that PowerPoint "stifles discussion," and that junior officers spend all their time creating slides.
The criticisms are very true, and bad use of PowerPoint is not just in the military, but in business as well. How many times have we suffered through slide after slide of bullet points, with the presenter reading them off in monotone? How many times have we had vendors show us "eye charts" (very complex slides with small type) showing all their services, products, or customers, with the rep glossing over them? How many times have we had to create a "deck" of slides for some budget presentation or another, agonizing over how to summarize our complex issues into a few bullet points - and then wonder if we should put periods at the end of the bullet point or not, or if they should be capitalized or not?
There is no doubt that a lot of time has been wasted by people using PowerPoint - theirs and their audience's.
However, the enemy is not PowerPoint. The enemy is lousy presentation skills and using one tool for everything.
PowerPoint is just a software tool used to create presentations. It is actually pretty generic - create a slide, add content. If there is one criticism, it is that PowerPoint makes it painfully easy to create bullet lists. But, just because you can create bullet points does not mean you should.
A presentation is someone standing in front of one or more people and telling them something. It is verbal in nature, and, since the focus should be on the presenter (and what he or she is saying) and not the computer screen, the slides should support what the presenter is saying, not be what the presenter is saying. The main information is coming from the presenter's mouth, and that information will not be detailed information. The best medium for sharing detailed information is a document, which is what another key component of Microsoft Office, Microsoft Word, is for.
If you are using PowerPoint for anything other than summary presentations, you are using the wrong tool for the job, and you are boring your audience.
Creating and giving presentations is a skill, and like all skills, it can be learned. And yet, virtually all businesses, and apparently the military too, do not ever teach this skill to their people. Is it any wonder we are suffering from Death by PowerPoint?