It was tough for me to miss a recent New York Times article about the U.S.military's overreliance on PowerPoint. Dozens of friends, colleagues, and readers of this column forwarded it to me and told me to pay attention to the accompanying PowerPoint slide—one of the ugliest I've ever seen.
The slide, brought to national attention by NBC's Richard Engel, was prepared for the leadership of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. It was intended to graphically represent U.S. military strategy in the region but "looked more like a bowl of spaghetti," as The Times put it. That's certainly true. "When we understand that slide, we'll have won the war," General Stanley McChrystal is quoted as joking. And that's the problem. PowerPoint has become a joke. Still, if you can avoid the cram-it-all-in approach, PowerPoint can be a highly effective tool to win over your audience.
The Times story was titled, "We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint." Great headline, but it's not true. The enemy is not PowerPoint. The enemy is a failure to understand how the brain processes information. Once you know how people learn best, almost any presentation software becomes a powerful complement to facilitating the transfer of knowledge. The key word is complement. The Times story showed how military commanders are using PowerPoint to direct the conversation, instead of using it as a powerful tool to complement the conversation. The distinction is critical.
Here are four ways that anyone—including military commanders—can create presentations that complement their message.
1. Present slides, not documents. Many people create wordy, confusing slides because they intend to send or e-mail them to recipients. Then they read from the slides word-for-word during their live presentation to an audience. That's the first problem. Documents are not presentations. Documents should be created in Word or Excel and sent before or after a presentation (or included as handouts). Presentation slides are not the same as supporting materials. Keep the two separate.
2. Edit aggressively. The military PowerPoint slide featured in the Times article contains more than 400 words. It's a dubious achievement to squeeze so many words on one slide. The average PowerPoint is only 40 words—still far too many. The most inspiring presentations I've seen have fewer than 40 words—total—in 10 slides. Neuroscientists have told me that the brain interprets every letter as a picture, so putting too many words on a slide chokes the brain on text.
3. Maintain a visual-verbal balance. When information is presented verbally, without pictures, listeners retain about 10 percent of the information when tested within 72 hours. Add a photograph or video and the retention rate soars to 65 percent. It's a concept called picture superiority: Information is more likely to be remembered when accompanied by images. This is one of the key reasons why I believe in the ability of PowerPoint to greatly enhance a presenter's message. When I worked as a broadcast TV anchor, it was well known that viewers tune out when they see a talking head for too long.
4. Break free from the slides. PowerPoint should complement the message, but it's not the whole story. Engaging presentations include demonstrations, multiple speakers, or audience participation. Bill Gates has been traveling the world giving presentations for his philanthropy, covering topics such as reducing poverty and carbon emissions around the world. In one famous TED talk in 2009, Gates released mosquitoes among the audience to demonstrate how malaria is spread. In February 2010, Gates released fireflies to reinforce the point that there are many gimmicky solutions to reducing carbon emissions; he said there are only five practical solutions, which he discussed for the rest of the presentation. The most memorable parts of his presentations took place outside of the slides.
It takes courage to rethink how you use PowerPoint. You can make the subject matter drive the presentation, create slides with fewer words and more photographs, break free of the presentation from time to time, and introduce guests or call on audience members. It's worth the risk because you will transfer ideas much more clearly and have a better chance of convincing your audience.