The 3-Legged PowerPoint Stool

Everybody blames presenters when it comes to bad PowerPoint, but nobody ever blames the people who can really do something about it.

Instead, if we were to focus our attention on 3 key groups who support the legs of our wobbly PowerPoint culture, the whole structure would easily fall over so we can finally stand up straight and start moving forward.

Presenters are easy to blame for bad PowerPoint: after all, the bullet point stops here, and it’s our fault if we were boring, redundant and uninspiring. But why is it our fault if our company handicaps us with a flawed PowerPoint template that guarantees boredom, confuses a logo with branding, and limits our vision? Why are we to blame for our organization’s lack of media training, PowerPoint resources and communications metrics?

In reality, PowerPoint is more a function of a person’s culture than a person’s character. You can have the most innovative PowerPoint in the world, but when your on-target approach crosses the firing line of PowerPoint politics, it’s a dead duck. We see on our screens what our culture expects, and little will change unless the culture changes.

stoolThat’s why we need to shift our focus from blaming individuals, to persuading the people who have the power to improve our culture. The job of persuasion won’t be very hard, because the 3 groups of people who can bring about rapid change probably just don’t realize yet that the seat of PowerPoint culture rests on their shoulders, and all they need to do is shrug off the dead weight to bring new communication to life:

1. Investors. Financial markets run on the concept of transparency, but PowerPoint can often make things quite opaque. When numbers are crunched, squeezed and reduced onto slides too small to hold them, clarity is the first victim. The board of directors of a major corporation recently recognized this problem, and directed the entire organization to make its PowerPoint simpler and clearer. Not a moment too soon for PowerPoint’s most tortured victims — investors. Investment bankers commonly see 500+ PowerPoints a year, and venture capitalists endure double or triple that number. Although they are in fact the most tortured of audiences, investors also have the most power to bring about change, because corporations run on the concept of financing. When investors start making it clear that they want their PowerPoint clearer, one leg of the PowerPoint stool will topple.

2. CEOs. Most design and advertising agencies don’t even have a full-time PowerPoint designer on staff, and it’s equally no surprise that no one is in charge of PowerPoint across most corporations. Maybe marketers will get someone to design a PowerPoint template, but how are they helping the engineers? Perhaps sales has an online database of PowerPoint slides, but how does that help investor relations? And what about the corporate trainers? PowerPoint is corporate culture expressed through every function at every level, and when it’s not working equally well across the entire organization, there’s only one person who can fix it. Although PowerPoint may seem to be beneath the level of executive decision-making, in fact it belongs at the top. When CEOs just say no to wasted productivity, lost knowledge, and frustrated strategy, another leg of the PowerPoint stool will fall.

3. Conference organizers. Pleasing an audience is hard, but often conference organizers make their job even harder by enforcing draconian restrictions on PowerPoint presentations. Speakers who prefer not to use PowerPoint are pressured to do so, presenters who choose a creative approach are forced to conform to conference templates, and people who would like some flexibility must stay within the rigid boundaries of what the conference technology allows. Although conference organizers are only trying to do the best for their audiences, the best means the best PowerPoint practices, not the worst. When conference organizers shift their orientation from visual conformity to communication results, a third leg of the PowerPoint stool will go.

Our shaky PowerPoint culture will only last as long as investors are willing to endure it, CEOs believe it’s not strategic, and conference organizers systematize it. When any or all of these 3 groups let go of their supports, we can finally move beyond blame and stand up for solid solutions.

Tip: If you have access to people who can influence PowerPoint culture, think of ways to persuade them to change. Even if they’re not close to being ready, start planting the idea that change is possible, and introduce fresh ideas and new approaches when you can. Sometimes, change won’t happen until a crisis occurs, such as a lost investment opportunity, a strategic setback, or declining conference attendance. But if you’ve been planning and innovating in the meantime, at least you’ll have a strategic leg to stand on.

This entry was posted in Business Strategy, Communications, Media, PowerPoint, Presentations, Web/Tech, Weblogs. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “The 3-Legged PowerPoint Stool”

  1. Effern says:

    My position is, be the change you want to see in the company. Generally speaking, if you can model behaviors, philosophies, and methods that cut against the grain of the “way we do things around here”, more often than not, others will want to perform at a similar level.

    It’s music to my ears when another department sees the work that my team is doing and asks, “why don’t we have/do that?”

    Depending on the size of your company, you may never enact a full-blown paradigm shift on your own, but by modeling the change you want to see, you won’t be doing it alone for very long. 🙂

    Great post!

  2. JJ says:

    Great post and I am particularly interested because I am part of a team organizing a conference. You’ve sparked our interest by identifying the problem and given a very general solution. Can you lead us to some more specific examples – possibly some guidelines for requesting presentations from speakers? What are some of the innovations you are talking about?


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