An Economist Talks About PowerPoint

Not me, I hasten to add, but Tim Taylor.

He published some days ago a wonderful little blogpost, commemorating the 20th anniversary of an essay called “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within“. It’s not a short essay, at 25 pages, but it is remarkably well written, full of lovely little anecdotes.

For example, did you know that Richard Feynman has a rant about bullet points?

“Then we learned about “bullets”—little black circles in front of phrases that were supposed to summarize things. There was one after another of these little goddamn bullets in our briefing books and on slides”

Both the essay and the blogpost are full of lovely little anecdotes and points such as these. I especially loved Tim’s concluding paragraph:

I just think we would all be better off with slide presentations that have fewer bullet points, fewer pages jam-packed with words, and fewer detailed numerical tables that can’t be read by anyone more than 30 feet away. Presentations impose costs of time and attention on others. In successful presentations, your attention is attracted, rather than taxed, and the entire time feels well-spent.

Having sat through my fair share of presentations in both the corporate world and in the world of academia, I can attest to the fact that in “unsuccessful” presentations, one’s attention is taxed. Mine has been taxed far too often at far too onerous rates The applicability of the Laffer Curve to the real world might remain a matter of debate, but I have empirical evidence about its relevance to sitting through PowerPoint presentations.

Do read both, Tim’s blogpost and Tufte’s essay – and here are my additions to both of their suggestions:

  1. Consider doing away with presentations entirely as often as you can. You can replace it, as Tufte’s anecdote about Gerstner suggests, with a conversation, or you can go Amazon style and have people write brief notes instead. But avoid presentations when possible.
  2. Do. Not. Read. Out. The. Slide.
    I am a person capable of reading what is in front of me. Not everybody in your audience might be able to do so at all times, of course, but working on the assumption that they are, please don’t read out the damn slide.
  3. Answer the “So What?” question. The title of the slide should not just describe what is in the rest of the slide, but it should also answer the question “So What?”. Gokul Rajaram’s LinkedIn post, which Tim links to, speaks about titles in the second bullet point: “The title does most of the heavy lifting, which means it cannot be passive. It must be action oriented. Eg: not “Subscriber retention” but “Subscribers continue to be retained strongly”. even better “Net revenue retention continues to be > 100%”.”
    I’d go a step beyond and say it could be something like “Net Revenue Retention targets continue to be exceeded at >100% Levels”. Or “need to remain at”, or “get even better than” – or whatever needs to be done as a consequence of the data shown in the slide.
  4. A presentation is a complement, not a substitute. It is there to help you do your job better, it is not there to do the job instead of you. Use it as a reference to help you deliver your talk later. Use it as an inspiration for you to take off on whatever point you want to make. Use it to convey a feeling, a thought, or an emotion (and this is why images are better than words), but don’t use it as a way to for you to be lazy on stage. Quite the opposite, actually.
  5. Make sure that there is a double thank you moment at the end of your presentation. And I should be more specific – make sure that you thank the audience for having listened to you, and make sure that they end up thanking you for having delivered the presentation. Not for finally ending it.