Oh, the Pain…

This is an excerpt from the soon-to-be-released third edition of Rick Altman’s provocatively-titled book on presentation best practices. Available by mid-June in paperback, PDF, ePub, and Kindle. You can learn more about it at the BetterPresenting website.


THIS BOOK IS NOT ABOUT PESSIMISM, despite the somewhat bawdy title. In fact, I would argue that this book explores the opposite: the ultimate message contained in these pages is enabling and optimistic.
Nonetheless, first there are dues to pay. As countless experts on messaging will attest, good storytelling is often about first identifying the pain. And as tennis great Martina Navratilova once said to me personally, “No pain…no gain.” She was talking about physical fitness, not creating slides, but I couldn’t pass up a chance to name drop…

Chapter 1: The 30-Minute Syndrome

If only I could earn the proverbial nickel for every time I have heard the following. It could be any setting in which the conversation might turn to PowerPoint, which in my case is frequently.

“Oh,” the person says, in response to almost any remark made about the software. “PowerPoint is easy. I learned it in about a half hour.”

Let’s start by acknowledging that the statement is generally true: PowerPoint is not difficult to pick up and begin using. Both of my daughters created slides for school projects before the age of 10, and indeed, a reasonably astute grownup can begin making slides within 30 minutes.

Microsoft might have you believe that this is a virtue of the software. In fact, it is bad. It is very, very bad.

Who Are These People?

Creating a presentation can be an extraordinarily creative experience, but it rarely starts out that way. And that is because PowerPoint’s default settings are not very creative and because most PowerPoint users do not come to the software from a creative field. They start out elsewhere in the Office suite. They are Excel crunchers, Outlook gurus, Access junkies. They are used to software with a steeper learning curve and a point of entry that requires much more effort before they can do much of anything. When they encounter PowerPoint and discover that they can begin using the program with effect in less than an hour, they are like kids with new toys.

But again, this is not a good thing; it’s a bad thing. These people declare themselves proficient after their requisite 30 minutes of training. These same people who get really good at their 30-minute skill set call themselves advanced users. And those who teach it to others are considered gods.

But they don’t get beyond those first 30 minutes of skills. And then they go forth and commit high crimes against innocent businesspeople everywhere. Death by PowerPoint.

We point our finger of accusation at both of the two main camps that we speak to in this book: those who create presentation content and those who deliver presentations. Often, one person wears both hats, but there is plenty of blame to go around. Inexperienced content creators and ill-equipped presenters both contribute to the poor reputation endured by the software and the presentation industry in general.

The Creative Disconnect

Missing from the equation, of course, is the creative component. And you can’t fault the typical number-crunching, word-processing Office user for not grasping that. These software programs are tools, wielded to perform tasks. You learn the tool well enough to perform the task, you go home for the day, and what happens in the cubicle stays in the cubicle.

But PowerPoint is different. With PowerPoint, you practice your craft in public, and this craft is forever linked with death and taxes as the three things humans fear most.

This is much more than the converted Excel user bargained for. It’s possible, make that likely, that she had no experience at all speaking before a group; she simply taught herself how to make bullet slides.

And herein lies the biggest disconnect of all. The company that this innocent Excel-cum-PowerPoint user works for might spend millions of dollars on its brand: expensive design firms to create glossy brochures…P.R. firms with lots of names on their door, hired to spin messages…high-powered marketing firms to ensure maximum exposure.

And this same company then sends someone out with 30 minutes of training to make what will likely be a company’s first impression: the sales call in the boardroom.

Why Is This Happening?

In the 1990s, Canada’s Corel Corporation was flying high in the graphics world, owning the most heralded and most popular graphics program around, CorelDRAW. Back in 1993, Version 4.0 added two programs to the suite: Chart and Show, to facilitate the creation and animation of charts and graphs.

Corel’s charting program was ahead of its time and not ready for prime time, but the graphic artists and illustrators who dabbled with it back in 1993 produced some very nice work.

They went nowhere, they were full of bugs, and most Draw users ignored them. Two years later, they were out of the suite, banished to small footnotes in the history of a smallish software maker. But a few users did dabble with them and their creations were quite impressive, as you can see at left. They were like nothing that any PowerPoint slide or Harvard Graphics chart (remember that?) ever produced.

This was perhaps the first time that a presentation tool was placed into the hands of a creative professional, and this little story from the past speaks volumes about the dilemma that the presentation community faces today. The issue is two-pronged:

  1. People are thrust into a position of being the company’s creative force even though they do not have a background in the arts or come from a creative field.
  2. Those who do have a creative background and are capable of producing excellent work with PowerPoint don’t have a place in their company’s org chart.

I would also like a nickel for every time that I have met a PowerPoint user with an obscure and obtuse title, or simply the “admin.” Not to impugn in any way the workforce of administrative professionals; the title does not and should not imply that a graphically talented person is holding the position.

Companies have simply not made enough of an effort to identify, define, and cultivate the role of the presentation professional. Therefore, it usually is assigned in haphazard fashion to anyone willing to step up to the plate, including the person who is simply good with Microsoft Office.

Have I described you yet? Odds are, I’m in trouble one way or the other. If I have identified you as the person thrust into the role of PowerPoint jockey, I’ve either offended you or made you defensive. If you are the creative professional honing your craft with presentations, I’ve reminded you of your biggest frustration and now you’re mad at me for that.

In other words, there’s pain in this book for its author, too…

2 Comments

  1. Tom Rodeheaver on May 25, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    I must be from Norway, you have to talk to me slowly. I don’t understand the analogy you’re trying to make about Corel. I’ve seen equally creative things done with PPt. The problems I see that would generate “death by PPt” comments are when designers/secretaries/middle managers stick to the provided templates and masters and bring nothing to the table but dense word slides and charts with too much information.
    A lot of my work has been in the cosmetic industry where if you don’t catch the eye of a customer immediately you’ve lost the sale and that type of attitude prevails in their sales meetings. You need to be creative and you need to show it and I and others do that consistently with PPt.
    So why is PPt the scapegoat?

    • Rick Altman on May 29, 2012 at 7:41 pm

      I, too, have seen equally creative things done in PowerPoint. My point about Corel’s 1994 attempt was that, while ahead of its time, it put a presentation tool into the hands of very creative people and the results were both impressive and intriguing.

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