As he entered the bar, Alan had rarely felt so energised or prepared. He’d ironed his favourite laser-blue shirt, showered, shaved and left home wearing just a hint of Paco Rabanne. Intriguingly, he was holding a laptop.
Five minutes later she arrived. The woman of his dreams. They hugged a little sheepishly and sat down at the corner table he’d confirmed with the manager the previous day. They ordered drinks and he opened the laptop.
“Well Naomi” he began, clicking ‘presentation view’ on the PowerPoint that had appeared on screen. “I’m so delighted you’ve made the time to meet. There are 17 things I’d really like to tell you about me. So let’s start with my family history. I’ve pulled it together into this organogram. And here’s a map of Europe with all the places I’ve travelled to.”
Madness? You’d think so. But in meeting rooms all around the world, very similar conversations take place every hour of every day. The only difference is that, unlike Alan, they believe that because they are at work, this type of discourse is normal.
My friend David needed a specific piece of legal advice around building in a conservation area. He called a well-known firm of property lawyers for an introductory meeting. The partner poured him a coffee, asked how he was, dimmed the lights and proceeded to read-out-loud a series of slides projected onto a screen on the wall. These contained information ranging from a list of the firm’s services to biographies of its senior partners. One small detail it omitted was any reference to building in a conservation area.
It’s as if initiation into corporate life includes a dictat that people look more professional if they say something totally irrelevant while pointing to a screen that says the very same thing. Perhaps there was an occasion when a firm lost a client because it wrongly assumed they could read? In practise, it creates a ‘Redundancy Effect’ where our ability to listen and learn is hindered by receiving the same information simultaneously in different forms.
Things were already bad before 2020, with meeting rooms, lecture halls and conference centres playing host to this suffocation by slides. Then Covid struck. And with it came exponential growth in PowerPoint. Corporate updates, pitches and restructuring models were presented on Zoom and Teams. Remoteness provided speakers with a false sense of security. If things were going really badly they could sit very still with their mouths open and pretend to be experiencing bad reception. Or claim that a life-saving delivery of loo roll had just arrived from Waitrose. Either way, preparation and originality seemed to disappear at precisely the same time as commuting and socialising.
The result was list after list on slides with headings like ‘Background’, ‘Context’, ‘Introduction’ and ‘Overview’. One presentation I sat through included all four.
And if that wasn’t enough, the government and its senior advisors took thinks to an entirely new level. Whitty was doing it, Valance was doing it, even the Minister for Health was doing it. We were told to follow the science. Science told us to follow the slides. SAGE and Independent SAGE locked fonts. Lockdown sceptics like the Barrington Declaration hit back with their own charts and graphs.
The presentation pandemic continued to grow in severity even as Covid rates fell. Jonathan Van Tam was knighted for his unflagging attempt to replace slides with similes.
The vaccine was good news for mankind, but bad news from those suffering from presentation fatigue. It spurned a new wave of charts and unnecessary written commentary. The double vaccinated were less likely to die from Covid, leaving us more susceptible to the misery of death by bullet point.
In recent months, face-to-face meetings and conferences have started again in earnest. But the presentation pandemic shows no sign of abating. Last week at work a client asked me to take a look at his new deck. Sadly, this wasn’t a nautical reference but 93 slides containing no less than 8,500 words. A fifth as many as The Great Gatsby.
This needs to stop for many reasons. For a start, the more charts, tables and bullets put in front of an audience, the more the key message is likely to be lost in the detail. It’s common sense. There’s a reason that nobody arrives on a first date with a slide show. It creates a barrier between two parties, stymying conversation and clothing what really matters.
But don’t blame Bill Gates. PowerPoint has been misused. A great speaker who engages an audience with a compelling narrative may click to reveal a spectacular image or two to reinforce their main point. Science suggests we remember images that accompany a story much longer than words. The advertising industry has worked that one out pretty successfully.
The advice I offer anyone giving a ‘presentation’ is to ban the word ‘presentation’. You are either giving a speech – that will keep an audience captive, possibly with some great illustrations. Or you are sending a written document that needs to be absorbed quietly with an opportunity to ask questions afterwards.
The ‘presentation’ falls into an ever-widening grey area between the two, where the ‘presenter’ uses the slides as a script. Audiences arrive with a camera at the ready, ignoring the speaker but snapping a picture of every slide.
I meet speakers who say that detailed slides make their life easier. But it’s the audience whose life should be made easier by an interesting, informative and empathetic talk. Endless slides compete with the speaker for attention. And win. Because most of us can read faster than we can listen.
So if you’re wondering about the best way for someone to remember your crucial message at work, imagine you’re not at work at all. How would you explain it to a friend over a glass of wine? If you’d begin with five minutes of background followed by a few bulleted slides full of context, you should meet a lovely chap called Alan.