Almost three years ago, I wrote a post on my personal blog that is still the single most visited post I’ve done.
The title: “I Hate PowerPoint.”
The title should have been, “I Hate PowerPoint Presentations.” PowerPoint is just a tool; it’s how we use it that’s the problem.
And we use it badly. We treat it like the canvas for Homer’s Iliad; we should treat it like the backdrop for a haiku.
PowerPoint was originally created to handle charts and graphs, which it can do admirably well. The problem arises with words.
We presenters like words. We like lots of words. And we want to use every single one of them on a PowerPoint slide.
Experts on PowerPoint will tell you that you should use not more than six to eight words on a PowerPoint slide. Can you recall the last time you saw a PowerPoint slide with no more than eight words on it? Can you recall the last time you created a PowerPoint slide with no more than eight words on it?
One time I sat through a PowerPoint presentation that had more than 60 slides. Each slide had been masterfully created to eliminate all white space, a wildly colorful combination of charts, graphs, graphics and words.
Each slide contained an average of more than 200 words.
No one understood what the presentation was about. No one remembered it later, except for the mind-numbing ordeal we had experienced. The speaker became something of an inside joke, and his presentation a guideline for how not to do PowerPoint presentations.
He wrote the Iliad when a haiku would have not only sufficed but been more effective. And on each slide.
PowerPoint contains a kind of poetry, but it’s a minimalist kind of poetry. It is the poetry of art – pictures, photographs, drawings, cartoons. Consider all the TED talks you can attend or watch online. Most of them have PowerPoint slides, but they don’t cram them with words. The very best TED talks are a careful composition of minimalist slides and an articulate, intelligent speaker. The slides supplement the main communication by the speaker; the speaker doesn’t read what’s on the PowerPoint slide; instead, the slides are illustrations of what the speaker is saying.
Both the poetry and the poet matter, and in presentations, the poet matters more because the poet communicates more through spoken words, voice, gestures and body language.
In fact, I’m suggesting we approach PowerPoint as a poet approaches a poem. Each word matters. Each word is carefully selected. Each word is sufficient. Each word evokes a picture, a mood, an emotion.
And each poem is not designed to be the complete Norton Anthology of American Poetry.
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