In January of 2014 I began a year-long experiment in professional communication. The experiment was simple: I abruptly stopped using PowerPoint.
At the time I was an active duty military officer in charge of an $84MM radar program, so this was not exactly a common practice. I also frequently speak at conferences and give guest lectures at local universities. PowerPoint is very much the default and I wanted to see what would happen if I took an alternative path. Spoiler alert: it worked beautifully.
To be clear, I’ve seen and given plenty of good presentations using PPT charts over the years. I read Garr Reynold’s outstanding book Presentation Zen and took it seriously. I studied the best presenters I could find, the TED talkers and Edward Tufte’s of the world, blending their techniques with my own style. I dedicated myself to the discipline of making charts with clarity and empathy, charts designed to foster genuine human connections. Then one day I quit using PPT entirely. I loved it, and apparently my audiences did too.
This new approach meant I spent zero time fussing with fonts and formats, looking for lame clip art (or non-lame clip art), or polishing bullet points. Not that I was doing a lot of that previously, but now I did none of it.
This gave me more time to think deeply about the actual content, to practice my delivery and to study my audience. The resulting presentations had more in common with a stand-up comedy routine than a typical business presentation. Not that I was going for laughs, although that sometimes happened. I was going for communication, and PowerPoint wasn’t getting in the way anymore.
I didn’t make a big deal about this experiment. Instead, I just quietly went about doing my job without making, using, or projecting any slides. I wrote reports and documents, I sent my fair share of emails (another experiment waiting to happen, I know!). I had plenty of discussions and gave lots of presentations. And I did it all without relying on the software program so many of us love to hate.
If anyone noticed or objected, they didn’t say anything. In fact, the response was almost universally positive and the outcome was exactly what I hoped it would be. When I met with my boss or my team, we would talk about the project’s issues, tasks, accomplishments, and challenges. With no slide deck to be used as a read-ahead or a leave-behind, we used spreadsheets and documents instead, artifacts designed to be read and discussed. Putting them on the table and in people’s hands made them more immediate, more real, more engaging, easier to grasp and use. This was a better alignment between the medium and the message, between the content and the packaging. I never once had to say “Good question, but we really have to get through these charts . . .” This approach is not the only reason we finished the project $8MM under budget, but I’m convinced it helped.
It was gratifying to hear that the new Secretary of Defense took a similar approach when he met with senior commanders and diplomats in February of 2015 to talk about war strategy and forbade them from bringing PowerPoint charts. As Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby put it, “The Secretary wanted today’s meeting to be driven by thoughtful analysis and discussion, not fixed briefings.” Looks like I’m not the only one doing this experiment.
Then one day my wife watched me give a presentation about my recently published book. I spoke about innovation for 45-minutes with no notes, no charts. I told stories to make my points and kept the audience both amused and engaged. She said it was a good talk but lovingly suggested it might have been better if I’d given the audience something to look at other than me. She had a great point. She always does.
A month later I found myself sitting in a hotel ballroom, attending Day 1 of a tech conference. I was scheduled to talk about my book on Day 2 and was blissfully prepared to do my usual chart-free show. Then my wife’s words of wisdom echoed in my brain and I knew what I had to do. That evening I fired up PowerPoint and spent half an hour assembling a small collection of charts. They were just pictures for the most part, depicting the technologies and systems I was going to mention in my talk. And you know what? Using those pictures made my presentation better.
Now that I’ve retired from the military and launched my own consulting business, I’m running a new experiment in professional communication built on what I learned from the previous one. Instead of avoiding PowerPoint entirely, I now use it occasionally, in instances where I think it would be helpful. I still give chart-free presentations and that approach still works well. But I sometimes turn the projector on and give the audience something to look at other than me. And sometimes that works even better.
– Dan Ward is the author of F.I.R.E.: How Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained and Elegant Methods Ignite Innovation and The Simplicity Cycle: A Field Guide To Making Things Better Without Making Them Worse. Prior to launching Dan Ward Consulting, he served for more than 20 years as an acquisition officer in the US Air Force, where he specialized in leading high-speed, low-cost technology development programs and retired at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. For more information please visit www.thedanward.com and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter.
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