Like most professional presentations trainers, I have some pretty definite ideas about how to improve the use of PowerPoint, and I certainly make those ideas known when I work with clients. The general idea, of course, is to use fewer slides, much less text and add relevant visuals, remove irrelevant visual objects such as logos, disclaimers, and ornate designs.
In many cases, following these principles requires presenters to do an extreme makeover on the look of their slides, and this is where I often get pushback. People will tell me that their audiences (especially their bosses) are used to a certain type of slide, and if they present anything that looks too different they run the risk of having the discussion about the slides drown out the discussion about the content.
For example, one of my clients runs regular ops reviews that feature a slide deck template that calls for a lot of text, and several slides with four graphs on each. I think it looks busy and confusing, but it’s what they’re used to and nothing I say can get them to change. While I get frustrated at this, maybe they’re right and I’m wrong. After all, I am a big proponent of expressing your ideas in the way that best suits your listeners.
Maybe culture is too strong a word to describe a company’s PowerPoint practices, but I think not, based on how widely accepted those practices usually are, and how reluctant people are to deviate from the norm. The funny thing is that most people individually agree with me, but worry that their colleagues won’t get it.
To show how powerful this culture can be, I’d like to quote a passage from Robert Gates’s new memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War:
“Meetings and conferences, I said, should be more interactive. A briefing should be the starting point for the discussion and debate, not a one-way transmission belt. If they had to use PowerPoint, I begged them to use it sparingly, just to begin the discussion or illustrate a point.”
“Again, changing the Pentagon’s approach to briefings was a singular failure on my part. I was not just defeated—I was routed.”
The Secretary of Defense is one of the most powerful people in the land, running an organization of over 2 million people, and even he was powerless to change its PowerPoint culture!
What does this mean to you? You might want to keep this in mind when you prepare your next all-important sales presentation. I certainly don’t advocate preemptively admitting defeat, but it might be a good idea to run your presentation by a coach for a culture fit test.
The general rules about slides that I summarize in the first paragraph are certainly important, but they also have to be balanced against two other important general rules:
Speak in the language your audience will understand.
The best slides are the ones that don’t get noticed.
 P. 85.