Overkill, Overbore, Underachieve

Published by Tony Quinlan on

I was talking with a colleague recently about a project she was peripherally involved in.  One of her clients is very command-and-control, by-the-numbers (mostly made up of engineers, maintenance men, manual workers) and is about to embark on a large-scale change communications project.  And had decided that it was going to have the training consultants put together the materials for this.

[There are, in this project, a number of things that I disagree with vehemently, but at the risk of this becoming a rant, I’ll stick with the headline problem.]

The main piece of this change jigsaw was a presentation that was being put together to go to the organisation at large.  The presentation slides were being put together by a trainer and currently numbered 174.

No, that’s not a typo.  174 slides.  I can’t imagine a single potential audience for whom 174 slides would be a good idea, far less the disaster that this seems.

Edward Tufte - The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint


My first reaction was “whoever’s putting them together should talk to whoever it is that does presentation skills training in the consultancy.”  There was an awkward pause.  “He’s the one putting the slides together.”

Narrate avoids doing “presentation skills training” as a rule – it’s an old-fashioned idea that’s had its day.  But the other week, when I was coaching a director of a large public sector organisation for a conference, we got away from using PowerPoint slides altogether, in favour of video footage and good delivery.

Bulletpointed slides don’t work in situations where you’re trying to communicate and generate understanding.  I know they may help presenters feel more confident when they’re presenting material they’re not sure about.  But then they shouldn’t be presenting.

If you’re going to use slides to get material or data across, there are three books to look at before you fire up PowerPoint:

Edward R Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Edward R Tufte, The Cognitive Style of Power Point

Cliff Atkinson, Beyond Bullet Points: Using Microsoft Powerpoint to Create Presentations That Inform, Motivate and Inspire

The latter started life as a blog Beyond Bullets, and another blog worth looking at is Presentation Zen.

And some other resources, including Edward Tufte’s own site, a New York Times article on how PowerPoint Makes You Dumb and a couple of Wired articles





David Tebbutt · 25 November 2006 at 10:55 pm

As always with sweeping generalisations, there’s opportunity to mislead.
“Bulletpointed slides don’t work in situations where you’re trying to communicate and generate understanding.”
Nothing wrong with bulleted slides as long as they’re a distant backdrop to the conversation taking place between the audience and the presenter.

Tony Quinlan · 27 November 2006 at 11:07 pm

In principle, yes. But I think the scenario you’re describing is too rare an occurence – and the poor use of slides is far too prevalent.
Granted, it may be more the case at the conferences and events you’ve been to recently, but my experience of inhouse presentations and conferences of late tells me that the point holds in a large majority of cases.

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