Cliff Atkinson has been writing for MarketingProfs about PowerPoint (and other graphical presentation tools) for more than three years now. I admit, when I first ran Cliff's stuff, I tended to view it as a bit limited: How much, really, is there to say about PowerPoint? Well, plenty, as it turns out. Almost a dozen articles later, Cliff continues to evolve his pet subject. It's not about PowerPoint, he says. It's about communicating your sales message (or any message, really) in a graphically compelling manner. In addition to his articles, he's recently authored a book and lectures worldwide. This month, on May 12, he leads a free online seminar, sponsored in part by us here at MProfs: "Transform Your PowerPoint Beyond Bullet Points!" (Get more information or sign up here.
Ann: You've built a career countering "Death by PowerPoint." What do the Microsoft people have to say about that?
Cliff: Microsoft is as eager as the rest of us to figure out better ways to use PowerPoint. Take a seat in any conference room in Redmond, and you'll experience the same bullet point boredom and frustration that occurs anywhere else. Microsoft's contribution toward a solution is that they invited an outside expert to offer a completely fresh way to use the tool, which became my new book — Beyond Bullet Points — published last month by Microsoft Press. Ann: So I guess they like you.
Cliff: [Next month] I'm giving my first workshop at Microsoft in June to a group of product managers, and am looking forward to sowing some bullet-free seeds of change.
Ann: PowerPoint fires people up that much? Isn't the whole topic a little on the margins, if not marginal?
Cliff: Not at all. We all normally think of PowerPoint as a fluffy and non-serious topic, but boards of directors and business schools are beginning to understand it as a serious culture issue that has huge ramifications through everything they do. HP, GE and the Wharton school of business are some of the groups that are developing an organizational consciousness about PowerPoint.
Ann: Why is that?
Cliff: Because it's a tool that everyone uses at every level of a company. Some of the biggest PowerPoint change initiatives have been led by boards and CEOs. They see this as a culture issue they need to engage at a deep level, rather than just making their PowerPoint template "prettier" and throwing it over the fence to the rest of the people in the organization.
Ann: Can you make a presentation without any bullet points?
Cliff: People have been communicating complex information using projected images and spoken words for more than a century without bullet points — in the form of films. We have a thing or two to learn from filmmakers about how they do that.
Ann: So do you see the idea behind PowerPoint as rooted in film?
Cliff: Right now it's not like film, and that's a core problem — we think of PowerPoint slides as pages of a book that we flip through as we read the text to the audience. But actually film is a much more interesting way to think about PowerPoint. Film implies that there's a coherent story told with a blend of spoken words and projected images. But the limitation of the film model is that it completely absorbs our attention, and dialogue stops. So to evolve the film metaphor, I think a good way to look at PowerPoint is as "a filmstrip at the speed of conversation." With this model we can tap into the awesome communicative power of filmmaking, but at the same time keep things flowing at an understandable pace, pausing the media when we want to engage one another before moving on to the next engaging part of the story.
Ann: How did you come to be evangelizing about the better use of PowerPoint?
Cliff: Although I did study theology for a little while, my background is in journalism and PR. My recent focus on PowerPoint comes from my interest in popular media. Setting aside all of our judgments about its how it's usually used, the fact is that in a very brief time PowerPoint has transformed our culture in ways we haven't yet recognized. You think blogs are getting big? In a very short time PowerPoint has reconfigured our meeting spaces around a screen, and every time we email our slides to someone we are part of a grassroots network where we create and control our own little piece of micro-media.
Ann: What's your life like outside the office?
Cliff: Well, now I live in Los Angeles, so outside my office I'm looking at a big palm tree and feeling a warm breeze blow through the window. Since I live in the film capital of the world, I try to take as many classes as I can in screenwriting and media studies. And I make it a habit to go on a long hike in the Hollywood hills at least four or five times per week, where I ponder ideas for my next book, which is not about PowerPoint this time.