Powerpoint is Killing Writing

Powerpoint is killing good writing skills in the business world. This is a terrible problem afflicting enterprises…and my personal sanity is suffering too. While Powerpoint slides can be useful for presentations at some point the medium lacks the ability to communicate the written word. Countless hours of mind numbing meetings are wasted trying to squeeze enough details, usually in 2pt font, into a Powerpoint to make it intelligible without the speaker. Additionally  an equivalent amount of time is spent interpreting Powerpoints written by others (unusally not present in the room). What’s a frustrated executive to do?

What is Wrong with Powerpoint as a Dcoument Type?

It was a design intent that the software was to be used as a presentation aid. The idea was to have some highlights, catching phrases, maybe even a few glam glam animated features to engage the audience in a presentation. Prior to Powerpoint a speaker would read from a script as is still done from time to time by folks like the US President during the State of the Union address. Definitely an improvement.

Over the years Powerpoint has moved from the auditorium, to the board room, to the meeting room, and now down to the individual as a means of documenting everything – as a replacement for Word.  The challenge is that the terse bullet oriented format so effective as an aid to oral presentations is equally disastrous as a formal tool for detailed writing. There isn’t enough room for details, so they are left out or placed in notes. The result is constant confusion and mis-interpretation – in my world the result is more meetings to try and understand the Powerpoint and argue about how it could be clarified.

More meetings of course generates more meetings: attendance at all the meetings to understand the Powerpoints becomes poor because there are so many meetings about understanding the Powerpoints – you can’t attend them all. It is a literal death spiral.

Exacerbating the issue is the fact that people are writing so many misunderstood Powerpoints and spending so much time trying to make them understandable that they are forgetting how to write prose documents. Do an experiment at your workplace – ask the worst Powerpoint offender to create a MS Word version of the Powerpoint and see what you get. Odds are you will get a 2 page document full of bullets.

Is this really a problem? Absolutely! Powerpoints allow the author to keep their thoughts in their heads. Heads get muddled, forget, get confused. Writing details down helps the author collect and organize, work through a problem, and give a complete set of details with no limitations.

How to Save the Written Word in the Enterprise

I have tried a number of things with some success. However I think two specific tasks have been most impactful over the years. Both involve active writing of documents – yes actual documents. Practice makes perfect.

I work in the world of technology: yes where Powerpoint is king. Drastic measures are required!

The Project Handbook

The first idea I had was to build into staff goals and objectives that for every project we do there must be a written document that summarizes all aspects of a project. I call this document a “Handbook”. It has a table of contents, sections for overviews of various things, a running regularly updated status, an observation section, and a conclusions section with lessons learned. The idea is to have large free-form paragraph blocks and to have sections that must be regularly updated. The document can be as short as 5 single spaced pages (including a cover sheet and TOC page) or as long as needed.

Management (me) would, at regular and unannounced intervals, review the Word document; this has the side benefit of killing of a meeting to review the Powerpoint. Feedback would be included in the document (yes actual “track changes” and document markup). This offers the chance to eliminate more meetings to revise Powerpoints and also allows for “teaching moments”. I’m not the greatest writer in the world, but I can make up for that with enthusiasm and a few tips learned at my alma mater Kenyon College.

This concept had a profound effect – projects became more organized, goals and objectives were more easily understood, business partners saw clear effort by the team to be very clear about a project, and most important the document provided a quick source of Powerpoint bullets when it came time for a Powerpoint to be created.


The Technology Snapshot

The second idea I had, given that we are a technology team, involved who would get to work on research/proof of concept projects with new technology. Everyone would have in their goals and objectives that they had to do 3 research projects per year. Each project would result in the creation of a “Snapshot” – a document no longer than 2 pages in length that summarized the concept, the evaluation, and the recommendation. In addition the document had to be written for a non-technical person, for example a PhD Biologist. Finally the project from start to finish should take less than 20 work hours – including the writing.

The point of this exercise was to get staff writing succinct, well organized, and easily understood documents. It had the additional effect of making research and PoC projects extremely well scoped, focused, and measurable.

Writing snapshots was very difficult for many people. Unlike the handbook where you have all the time and space, the Snapshot requires a lot of careful thought and very concise writing. Initially it was taking people 10 hours to just do the writing, but with practice the time would quickly drop down into the 2-3 hour range with the writing improving all the way along.

In subsequent years Snapshot opportunities would be handed out as rewards for good work on other projects and assignments.

 Where to Go From Here

I have sufficiently sated my frustration from today’s Powerpoint meetings – and clearly overused this term during this post. However you will notice I have used no bullets, transitions, graphics, or other tricks. Surely you can see, no matter how bad my writing is, that I attempt to practice what I preach. I have slacked a bit this year with my quest to reinvigorate writing in my workplace, but mid-year goals and objective updates are approaching 🙂 Please join me and keep Powerpoint where it belongs!

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