How to Avoid Death By Powerpoint

In 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded during its re-entry to the atmosphere, killing all 7 passengers on board. Amidst the aftermath of this event, most agreed that the cause of the tragedy was an issue with the foam insulation. However, an independent review board at NASA proposed a new explanation.

PowerPoint. PowerPoint caused the tragedy, they said.

The board claimed that crucial information regarding the shuttle had been buried in a cluttered yet ambiguous PowerPoint slide at NASA. Had this PowerPoint slide been more effective, the 7 crew members on board might still be alive today.

While this literal “death by PowerPoint” stance was controversial, PowerPoint has undoubtedly taken some criticism in recent years. PowerPoint has been accused of inducing cognitive overload, harming productivity, and killing creativity.

At GXG, we have a long-standing opposition to PowerPoint. We don’t disagree that PowerPoint can be a fantastic aid to a presentation. However, more often than not, the PowerPoint becomes the presentation itself. That’s when we have a problem.

For that reason, we usually advocate for skipping the PowerPoint altogether. Below, we have outlined two tried-and-true presentation alternatives.

Alternative #1: Use a Flip Chart!

James Marshall, an experienced facilitator, coach, and consultant, recently shared an experiment he performed at a workshop. He prepared two presentation topics. He presented the first using a PowerPoint, and the second using a flip chart. Afterwards, he tested how much his audience had learned from each. While the audience couldn’t remember the contents of the PowerPoint, the group retained the majority of the content discussed using the flip chart.  Flip charts, he concluded, are a clearly a much better way to go.

Similar to PowerPoint, a flip chart offers a visual supplement to your presentation. However, different from PowerPoint, a flip chart restricts your ability to present overcomplicated graphics and text-heavy slides. In our experience, nothing will force you to simplify your visuals like trying to draw them on a flip chart!

For some, doodling during a presentation may feel unnatural, but once you get the hang of it, using a flip chart can bring simplicity, engagement, and a ton of personality to your presentation.

Alternative #2: Have a Conversation

A Harvard study recently found that PowerPoints are no more effective than a verbal presentation. In fact, another study found that students actually retain 15% less information from a PowerPoint than from a verbal presentation.

There are many hypotheses as to why this is the case. One explanation is that PowerPoints can discourage audience participation. Their standardized and linear format signals to the audience that there is no room for comments or questions. This is disappointing, because the most engaging presentations are usually the ones that invite audience participation.

So, our suggestion, skip the PowerPoint altogether. Just have a conversation with your audience. Challenge yourself to articulate your key points in words, with no visual reminders to fall back on – and keep your audience engaged by inviting continuous participation.

Our CEO, Craig, often recites the quote “leadership is a conversation.” Great leaders encourage a dialogue and invite different viewpoints in each and every decision they make. We feel strongly that presentations should reflect that. An effective presentation is simple, interactive, and engaging. A monotone recitation of cluttered paragraphs in a PowerPoint just won’t cut it.

Next time, experiment with some flip charts or some dialogue for a more conversational, fun, and effective presentation!

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