Power Point and the Triangle of Death – A Rant

The origins of Power Point were solidly grounded in good intentions.  Remember slides?  People put pictures on them, or graphs — visual aids.  They were intended to act as accompaniments to lectures and presentations. 

The whole idea was that the speaker would talk for a while, and then occasionally show a slide that illustrated a point with a picture or a striking image, or made a set of numbers clear with a bar graph or a pie chart. 

Slides were time-consuming to create, and difficult to change.  So most people used them sparingly.  I once saw a speech by a National Geographic photographer that included a hundred slides, but each one was a uniquely wonderful picture he had culled from thousands, literally.  He was entitled. 

Then came Power Point.  People soon got the hang of creating slides; they were easy to make using this software, and easy to change. 

And somewhere along the line, Power Point ‘decks’ ceased being illustrative information to accompany talks.  They became speaker outlines. 

Now we watch in horrified fascination as a speaker plods through every word on slide after slide with 20 lines or more of text on them.  We wonder, as our consciousness slowly ebbs, ‘will he read every word, or will he occasionally vary the words slightly?’

And we have the Power Point Triangle of Death, where the speaker moves to the screen to point out some illegible word, drifts back to his computer, while mumbling something about the next slide, only to come to the third point of the triangle floating somewhere uneasily in between his screen position and his computer position. 

None of these moves has anything to do with the audience, communicating with whom is after all the purpose of the talk, isn’t it? 

Thus, Power Point, in the hands of most business speakers, commits the fatal sin of at once making the speaker and his talk irrelevant to the audience. 

If you’re a Power Point abuser – and more than one slide every 5 minutes qualifies you – then don’t bother to gather the audience together.  Just email them your ‘deck’ and save everyone a lot of trouble. 

Comments

  1. says

    I think the odds of tripping the delivery after spending so much time developing them is unlikely. Great slides requires such refinement of your message, creation of metaphors and imagery that it’s almost impossible for you not to have a great story to tell. I assume that by the time you’re that skilled at building slides, you’ve also been around the public speaking block and have refined those skills.
    Great post Nick. I love the speakers who effortlessly flip slides…they don’t glance back and the audience smoothly transitions to the next topic.
    - John Rode

  2. says

    Hi, Jakob –
    And thanks for the rant in return:-). Of course, you’re right that a gifted speaker/designer can use more than one slide per 5 minutes. I was simply putting down a marker for the average PP abuser.

  3. says

    Some times the mind boggles that you need to point out the obvious. So thanks, Nick, for doing that none the less. Thanks for mentioning the elephant in the room. Has not everyone suffered from bad presentations? Why would they inflict the same mind numbing experience upon their audience?
    The problem is twofold. First, the design process of the visual aides is broken. It is broken because the authoring tool facilitates a creator-centric approach rather than an audience-centric approach. Powerpoint with its dreadful templates is especially bad at this, but Keynote is not much better, nor does Prezi or any mainstream authoring tool nudge the content creator to think of the adience for his or her visual aids.
    Second, this broken paradigm is through social inheritance established as the convention of using the medium of visual aids. Even improvements within the same broken paradigm can not overcome the fundamental problems that the creator-centric approach brings. People don’t even experience examples of other approaches – if they do, they think that it is because a different medium is used. “Oh, she is not giving a presentation, she is performing/narrating a movie/doing magic/…”
    Think about it: Even though the tools are all powerful enough to create extraordinary experiences for your audience, they actually guide you to adopt practices that might help you structure your thoughts sequentially, but are detrimental for your audience understanding of what you want to say.
    So if you get people to adopt an audience-centric paradigm, they might even think of ways to overcome the falsely perceived “best practices” and create content to their audience’s needs. If they do that – and here I have to disagree with you – they are very much empowered to use more than one slide every five minutes. They can use whatever gets their message across. Powerpoint is one heck of a powerful tool.

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