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Stop Making Presentations! How PowerPoint Ruined the US Economy

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • The recipe for delivering a knockout presentation
  • How PowerPoint presentations can hurt your objectives
  • How to persuade people to take action

Right now, in countless hotel meeting rooms, public auditoriums, corporate conference rooms, and small, cramped offices, thousands of competent and otherwise productive executives, managers, and salespeople are quietly snoring and drooling on expensive notepads.

They sleep because some poor consultant, vendor, partner, or other supplicant is hiding in the dark behind a data projector, "telling them what he's going to tell them, telling them, and then telling them what he told them," with every word emblazoned on the screen.

"Now, wait a minute," I hear you saying. "What's wrong with good-ol' PowerPoint? I mean, PowerPoint's got your situational templates, your automatic color schemes, your animation, your sound effects..."

Hey, I'm not saying you can't do cool things with presentation graphics. I'm just saying that's not how you get results as a business communicator. And, OK, it's not Microsoft's fault that PowerPoint is the ubiquitous presentation graphics program on the market. Well, it is Microsoft's fault, but not its fault that it costs the US economy billions of dollars.

PowerPoint, Keynote, and Google Docs presentations, among others, are all equally capable of robbing a communicator of his value and ability to connect with people. But the point remains that most business presentations don't work. Yes, deals are made; and, yes, sometimes they're made in close proximity to PowerPoint presentations. But the vast majority of those deals happen despite the presentation, not because of it.


Case in point: Way back in the days of the "dot-com bubble," a prominent IPO-churning investment bank asked me to assess the presentation materials it used to pursue private companies for M&A (mergers and acquisitions) and IPO (initial public offering) underwriting. The "right pitch" (or so the investment bank reasoned) could bring in millions for the firm with a single win, but competition was fierce with numerous banks offering virtually identical opportunities.
 
The bank's PowerPoint pitch droned for nearly 80 pages about the company's great history and achievements. Those presentations sometimes lasted three and a half hours. When trying to convince this company that its unique ability to create value had nothing to do with its corporate history and everything to do with how it was going to meet the unique needs of this prospect, I felt like Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

Not surprisingly, the investment bank, unable to shift its focus away from itself and onto the needs of its clients, became a victim of the economy's dramatic downturn. Equally unfortunate, the addiction to PowerPoint-driven, self-absorbed presentations is alive and well today.

However, the good news is that you have an opportunity for differentiation by using a less formulaic approach.

What's the Real Cost?

A long PowerPoint presentation may not be the best way to communicate, but, you may ask, where did I get 'billions of dollars' lost? OK, let's take a look.

How much did the investment bankers pay the smart young analyst trainees who stayed awake until dawn consolidating reams of data and plugging it all into PowerPoint? What was their core competency? I bet it wasn't PowerPoint. What was the executive presenter's time worth? What if he could have closed more deals in less time? What was the opportunity cost of a wasted "branding opportunity"? What is the opportunity cost of failing to differentiate your company, product, or service from your competition? I'm calling it billions. You can do your own math.

The real cost may be in the formulaic thinking those presentations tend to reinforce. Somewhere along the line, executives started worrying more about their elevator pitch than about the problem their company solved.

If we've learned anything from the cyclical collapses—of various "bubbles" —it's that you have to have a great business before you can tell a great story, and PowerPoint has little to do with either one.

What's the Objective?

As business communicators, leaders must move people to action. That they hear you, or even understand you, isn't enough to move them to action.

Yet, most standard business communication tends to look and feel like a data dump. Guess what? By itself, data doesn't connect with people—people connect with people.

Learn to Connect First

If PowerPoint "data dumps" don't work, what does? In a word... connection. Relax. You don't need to lead a corporate encounter group. No group hugs necessary; I promise.

For you, a business communicator, "connection" means that everything you say and everything you do is driven by the result you want in relationship to the reality of the people you are talking to. The way you use your body and voice, as well as the ideas you choose, had better meet the needs of the people you are talking to if you want them to change in some predictable way.

If as a business communicator you are not being driven by the result you want and if you don't have a radical sensitivity to the people you are talking to, then you are leaving money on the table.

Next time you have an important phone call to make, don't ask yourself what you want to say. Instead, ask yourself, "What do I want the person I am calling to do as a result of our conversation?"

Starting with the result you want forces you to be more strategic and to plan your ideas with a greater sensitivity to the other person. Put on her moccasins for a while, and look at the world from her perspective. Her reality, needs, wishes, etc., not yours, will drive her willingness to act. If you let her reality, in relation to the result you want, drive what you say and how you say it, then you are communicating strategically in a way that deepens relationships, creates value, and differentiates you from your competition.

Establishing a Core Message

Let's say you need to talk to your company's board of directors to get approval for discontinuing quarterly reports so you can focus on long-term client and shareholder value. You don't begin by planning with PowerPoint. PowerPoint wasn't designed as a planning tool. It was designed as a "presentation graphics" tool. It has simply been used the wrong way for too long.

Instead, plan with a notepad or, if you must, a Microsoft Word document. First, determine the action you want from your audience members; then, evaluate their needs; and let that combination drive your "core message."

That message has to offer a "quid pro quo": Take the action I want you to take, and I will deliver something you need.

If you dream up ideas that go beyond that promise, chances are you're back to talking about what you want to talk about (not about what they need to hear)—and worse: back to merely dumping data.

Graphics as Friend, Not Foe

Only when your ideas are listener-focused and results-oriented is it logical to ask, "Must some of these ideas be made visual?" If the answer is yes, then it's time to go have a pint at a local pub, or at least imagine that you are going to one. Because the way we create visuals on the fly—when we have no technology and when the people we are talking to need some sort of visual aid—provides a pretty good thinking process for developing visuals that work. In a pub, sometimes a complex concept can be made simple with a quick sketch on a cocktail napkin.

If you are willing to work hard enough to evaluate your ideas from your audience's perspective and in the context of a particular result, achieving an effective use of visuals is pretty straightforward.

Presenters the world over try to reinforce everything they say with graphic support. That creates a logical problem: If you are trying to reinforce everything with the same type of visual support, then you end up reinforcing nothing! A lone stalk of corn in a big field is a beautiful, singular miracle of nature. A field of corn is, well... yellow and green. If each visual is not a critical part of the process of moving a listener to act, then it is probably just a foe (i.e., a distraction), not a friend.

One more example: while attending a huge venture forum in San Francisco, I witnessed a technology company executive go through an incredibly complex, artistic, and downright entertaining PowerPoint presentation on his product, about which, tellingly, I can't remember a thing. The lights were low, and no one could really see the speaker, but everyone was mesmerized by the "show."

Afterward, in the breakout room, a line of seemingly motivated potential investors waited to talk to the speaker. The first question asked seemed to be on the minds of everyone in the queue. Each time that same question was asked, the speaker seemed more and more deflated. Were these people challenging him on market size? No. Were they grilling him on systems architecture? Nope. Questions about the team? Sorry, no. So, what was the common burning question? It was this: "How did you make that little bear dance on the screen?"

Stick to the Basics

As a business leader, you are not talking in public forums to entertain, to look smart, to inform, or even to educate. Start with the action you want others to take, analyze the needs of the people you will talk to, advocate a solution to a problem in your message, and allow your ideas to convince them that you can deliver that solution.

Communicate with empathy, power, and influence, and communication will become a strategic process, too. When you do that, you will help make this nation economically great once again!


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Dan Sapp is a 20-year thought leader on business communications with a unique perspective about what is required to move people to action and drive business results.

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  • by Just sayin' Fri Aug 12, 2011 via web

    ..."a line of seemingly motivated potential investors waited to talk to the speaker"

    don't you think this WAS his objective?

  • by ed Fri Aug 12, 2011 via web

    I'm sorry. But I found this article a waste of time. SImply put, it sets PowerPoint up as a straw man so as to review the basics of an effective presentation and to state that one should not let PowerPoint be an end in itself. Duh. Where's the contribution here? Who is not aware that PowerPoint has been over-used and mis-used? Who is not aware that Steve Jobs demonstrates how to make effective, attention-getting presentations where the slides don't get in the way?

  • by Kent Evans Fri Aug 12, 2011 via web

    Not to mention that Dan Sapp posted this 18 months ago on his own blog. SO, Marketing Profs, not only where's the value in this article; but, where's the value in re-publishing months old articles and selling them to PRO subscribers as "thought leading" content?

  • by Anon Fri Aug 12, 2011 via web

    Do you have any comments about Prezi.com ? Thanks.

  • by Bob Sanders Fri Aug 12, 2011 via web

    We've been teaching various ways to present w/o ppt for over 20 years. My last session resulted in this email: My first 15 sheet presentation! What fun, fun, fun. My ‘guy’ was walking from sheet to sheet with me, making notes on the papers, pointing….This is what I live for! It was like fifth grade presentation only better. I am going to have this system down pat and be your best evangelist!

    Drop ppt.

    Bob Sanders
    Sanders Consulting Group
    Blog: http://sandersconsulting.com/newbusinesshawk/
    Twitter: http://twitter.com/newbusinesshawk

  • by Vahe, MarketingProfs Fri Aug 12, 2011 via web

    Thanks for chiming in, everyone. Hopefully, I can clarify some of the points you raise.

    @Justsayin', I would guess that his objective would be to speak with actually motivated potential investors rather than those only seemingly motivated in investing (i.e., those actually motivated only in knowing how he made a bear dance on screen).

    @ed, true... many people do know of PowerPoint's shortcomings, as well as those of people who use it incorrectly for presentations. But many people, including just starting out in their marketing careers, are anything but aware... MarketingProfs also strives to meet the needs of people who are not so familiar with PowerPoint or the best-practices of presentations. In other words, some content may be old had for some people, but new to others.

    @Kent Evans, the version on Dan's blog is a much-abridged version (and not every MarketingProfs visitor reads Dan's blog, after all). And, to clarify: this article isn't only for PRO subscribers; it's free for everyone to see.

    Thanks again for your thoughts--and for helping to keep us on our toes.

  • by Marvin Fri Aug 12, 2011 via web

    I take exception to the previous comment. Like many business people I've had the great misfortune to sit through many mind numbing Power Point Presentations, exactly as you've described.

    Irrespective of Steve Jobs attention getting presentations, where the slides don't get in the way, not everyone has the requisite ability or confidence to get past using the slide as the primary focus or their presentation rather than a simple visual aid.

    Neither do many executives or presenters get the point that the objective of most presentations is in fact driven by a marketing objective. Even when the primary point is to deliver basic information to executives within a company, something is being sold, figuratively, even if it's only sales figures for the last quarter.

    Steve Jobs is a classic example of someone who, understands all those points made in this article. It is that very understanding which not only makes Apple distinctive in the market, but also drives all their marketing.

    If nothing else, Apple does not bore us to death with endless bullet points about how good the company is, how many products they've sold and the relative coolness factor of the iPad as seen on a bar graph.

    Imagine how many iPhones they would sell by putting prospective customers in a dark room and running through a typical Power Point showing the projected market penetration and a cost benefit analysis across the demographic groups of their target market, as illustrated by several colorful pie charts.

    The point is well made that, for a presentation to be effective it must engage the audience, while reinforcing a core marketing message, not distracting from it.

  • by Jim Love Fri Aug 12, 2011 via mobile

    Thought this was great. It was a timely reminder to look at the way I present. Thanks.

  • by Alternatives Fri Aug 12, 2011 via web

    I have a few clients who have used Prezi, however for a point of difference it is kind of last year and not for serious business use. I prefer to create micro sites or interactive presentations that I have my team create. I have a client that is in Health Economics, they need to communicate complicated data or evidence that is ever changing. They use a product called BaseBase (www.basecase.com). It makes the communication of data graphical. I think it might only be for the Health Economic Market, but for those who want something better than PowerPoint and something interactive, could work?

  • by David Fri Aug 12, 2011 via web

    Great article. Everyone seems to expect a Powerpoint presentation with overhead projectors firmly installed in most boardrooms throughout the country.

    I'm not sure if we can eliminate PP - but certainly we can all "trim" the number of slides we choose to communicate our message. I feel 10-12 slides should be the maximum, otherwise your real audience will resemble the clip art for the article and will be checking their mobiles or fantasizing on being somewhere else.

  • by Miles Austin Fri Aug 12, 2011 via web

    Challenging thoughts throughout the commentary here, learning from both sides.
    I disagree with Alternatives re: Prezi though. "Last year and not for serious business use"? C'mon.

    All tools are dependent on the user to use them to meet the needs of the author and the audience. Prezi holds the potential to foster much more of a free-form discussion, not being held to the more structured, linear flow of PowerPoint and others.

    I recommend maintaining a set of presentation tools, each with a specific capability, that a presenter can mix and mingle as appropriate to deliver the message and get the audience to act.

    Thanks for the discussion!

  • by SpencerBroome Fri Aug 12, 2011 via web

    Can't disagree Powerpoints getting in the way of solid communication at times.

  • by Steve Keifer Fri Aug 12, 2011 via web

    I don't see any correlation between the title and the content of the article. How exactly did PowerPoint ruin the economy?

    Let's not blame a tool for bad presentations. The one to blame is the presenter. A bad presenter will deliver a bad presentation with or without PowerPoint. However, I do agree that most bad presenters are worse with PowerPoint because they read off the slides and use it as a crutch.

    A good presenter will engage the audience with or without PowerPoint. And if used effectively as a visual aid, PowerPoint can make a good presenter even better.

  • by MeganH Fri Aug 12, 2011 via web

    Though this is a well-known fact--ppt presentations are often boring--the not so well-known part is how to overcome that to successfully deliver one's pitch. We're not all openly charasmatic people with great public speaking skills, and it does help us to have the support of visuals to demonstrate our points. So, giving us ideas on how to plan the presentation without completely relying on the slides is very helpful.
    I had a teacher who made very impactful presentations by just having slides with either a picture or a picture and a word, quote, or short phrase. It gave the audience something to ponder as she spoke, but the bullet points of what she was going to say where nowhere to be seen.
    I'd like to be able to do my own presentations more like that, but at work it seems that even though we know it's boring, we're stuck in this format of how it's always done, and we just keep perpetuating it anyway. Vicious cycle.

  • by Heather Fri Aug 12, 2011 via web

    This article does a lot of whining and very little "making it better". There is a great book "Why most powerpoints suck and how you can make them better" by Rick Altman. It isn't the tool that is the limiting part it is the canned way most people apply the tool. I have seen Rick Altman present and he preaches that the powerpoint illustrates the words of the presenter not regurgetates them.

  • by Don Tepper Fri Aug 12, 2011 via web

    Powerpoint is symptom of mindlessness and the ignorance that (to go with the title of this blog) "ruined the US economy." Not the cause: Just a symptom.

    Fewer and fewer people are thinking and questioning. Instead, they like to have the answers spoon-fed to them, entertainingly and in small, tasty bites. That's why TV's overtaken (or overtaking) books and newspapers. That's why the shouting (not talking--shouting) heads on TV are so popular. They prefer to open their ears and eyes and let others shovel it at them. And PowerPoint fills that need to a "T."

    At the other end--the presenters--someone can be the world's greatest physician or nuclear physicist or Indy car driver, but can have the presentation skills of a stalk of broccoli. And that's OK. We all have different skills and different limitations. But there's this myth that PowerPoint can spin verbal straw into gold. It can't. It doesn't. It's incumbent on those surrounding what I'd call these "amateur presenters" to point that out and encourage the presenter to find high-quality assistance in making the presentation and conveying the information.

    How's that a symptom of what's ruining America? There seems to be a growing belief--not discouraged by those who know better--that if you're skilled at one thing, you're skilled at everything. If you're a good actor, then you must be an expert on the environment, too. If you're a good comedian, then you'd be a good politician. (Maybe the jury's still out on Al Franken!) If you're a good athlete, then you'd be a good motivational speaker. If you're a good businessman, then you'd be a good President. (Not a slam on the current candidates; Jimmy Carter will suffice as evidence.) So there's this willingness to accept that, if you're a knowledge expert, then you must be a godo presenter. It's the same mindset.

    Finally, we as audiences have put up with too much of this garbage. OK, if it's our boss up there droning on, we've got to suck it up. But how about meetings where you pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to attend? Or a sales presentation where the salesperson is trying to persuade us to sign a big contract? Or a continuing education program where, if we're lucky, we can ask the presenter for a "copy of his presentation" so we can read it later? In those cases, we're nothing more than enablers.

    And how does that relate to today's economy or the status of the U.S. in the world today? We're becoming a nation of enablers. We speak up only when something directly affects us. Otherwise, we seem increasingly content to allow others to make more and more decisions for us, and decisions affecting us and the nation. Two quick examples: the "PATRIOT" Act which, in the name of patriotism and defense of the homeland has severely eroded many of our civil liberties. But because most of us don't see the direct problems, we remain silent. Second example: America's longest war: Afghanistan. Longer than Vietnam. Longer by far than World War II. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, at least you had citizen involvement. Some wanted to get out of Vietnam immediately. Others yelled back: "Love it or leave it." Now we just say, "Oh, I guess the President and the military know what they're doing."

    Bottom line: PowerPoint appeals to folks who want to be spoonfed information. It appeals to presenters who think that because they're skilled in one area, that they must be experts in all. And it's tolerated (even encouraged) because somehow we lack the guts to stand up and challenge what's being presented to us.

    PowerPoint hasn't ruined the U.S. economy. But the same factors that contribute to its popularity are the factors that are threatening the country.

  • by Dan Soschin Sun Aug 14, 2011 via web

    I believe that most people are just plain uncomfortable presenting in front of any size group. So, they turn their focus on something they can control - the logistical components of their presentation - PowerPoint. PowerPoint slides become their crutch and give them confidence that if they stick to the ppt script, they can survive the presentation. Good presentation skills are a rare trait, so for most people, relying on PowerPoint is their only option.

  • by Dan Tue Aug 16, 2011 via web

    "How PowerPoint Ruined the US Economy!!"

    Are these guys serious? Nuf said

  • by Dan Tue Aug 16, 2011 via web

    @Don Tepper - it's not even a symptom. This article is just a desperate attempt of winning traffic to the site. nothing more.

    These guys have some great content sometimes, but this isn't great content. It's scraping the barrel.

    Powerpoint is a tool nothing more..

    "How PowerPoint Ruined the US Economy!!"

    That headline is offensive to serious business people and misleading to everybody else.

  • by Nancy Thu Aug 18, 2011 via web

    I find a Mind Map is more effective than PowerPoint because you can easily present the big picture and navigate around the map according to the flow of the conversation. The primary drawback as a presentation tool is that some people only use text, not the colors, clouds, graphics, etc. that make it more engaging.

  • by Phil Mon Aug 22, 2011 via web

    too many people ask for a ppt - "I need a ppt for tomorrow!" whereas once you dig deeper into the actual reason for the meeting, or presentation there are a few tools that can be made of use. I agree that we misuse ppt to the point that they become fancy word documents.
    I've used prezi and this works really well to get an audience involved and to get over the right message through a presentation - it also stops the misuse of putting everything you want to say on the ppt slides in alarge list of bullets or loads of text all over the slide.
    I reckon a max of 5-9 slides is all you need - its a bit like creating an ad using copy - write what you want to say then remove half then remove hlaf again - you will be surprised at the result.

    Also, there is no harm explaining how to use ppt again and again and again you would be surprised at the number of people that still can not present with this tool.

  • by Mandy Mon Sep 5, 2011 via web

    I'm totally confused about what am I supposed to take away from this article!

  • by Scott Fri Sep 9, 2011 via web

    @Mandy - I had to reread the article after reading the comments, because I lost the point as well. After all the conversation, my take away is the third sentence from the end.

    "Start with the action you want others to take, analyze the needs of the people you will talk to, advocate a solution to a problem in your message, and allow your ideas to convince them that you can deliver that solution."

    And remembering that PPT is only a tool. The presentation message should be planned and understood before starting to create the presentation.

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