Home, Archive, Stuff, Random thoughts, London, My Rigs, Pictures, Dreams, Links, About, Contact, Search

spikegifted - Random thoughts


PowerPoint: Food for Thought

October 3, 2003

[Originally posted by Doctor.Bob]

Here's the text of an editorial from 'The Lancet' (a medical journal). I thought it was fascinating.

PowerPoint: shot with its own bullets

Imagine a world with almost no pronouns or punctuation. A world where any complex thought must be broken into seven-word chunks, with colourful blobs between them. It sounds like the futuristic dystopia of Kurt Vonnegut's short story Harrison Bergeron, in which intelligent citizens receive ear-splitting broadcasts over headsets so that they cannot gain an unfair advantage over their less intelligent peers. But this world is no fiction--it is the present-day reality of a PowerPoint presentation, a reality that is repeated an estimated 30 million times a day.1

Stanford University's Cliff Nass was quoted in the New Yorker2 saying that PowerPoint "lifts the floor"; it allows some main points to come across even if the speaker mumbles, forgets, or is otherwise grossly incompetent. But PowerPoint also "lowers the ceiling"; it makes it harder to have an open exchange between presenter and audience, to convey ideas that do not neatly fit into outline format, or to have a truly inspiring presentation. This is what I was getting at when I created the Gettysburg PowerPoint presentation (figure),3 a parody that has been viewed by hundreds of thousands of frustrated PowerPoint sufferers. I used PowerPoint's AutoContent Wizard (which Parker2 calls "a rare example of a product named in outright mockery of its target customers"), adding only the slide "Not on Agenda!" to the standard format.

Link to Gettysburg Address Slide

And the Speech it endeavours to be a synopsis of:

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth".

Nobody should be surprised that PowerPoint does not measure up to the great speeches of history, such as Lincoln's address. And it is certainly a shame when a potentially interesting presentation is dumbed down by another formulaic over-application of PowerPoint. But when PowerPoint leads not only to boredom but also to bad decisions, it is a tragedy, not just a shame.

For an example of excellent decision-making without PowerPoint, consider the agenda of Apollo program-manager George Low, on Aug 9, 1968.4 At 0845 h, Low met with Houston center-director Robert Gilruth to recommend that the Apollo 8 mission attempt a lunar orbit, an ambitious change from previous plans. Gilruth agreed. At 0900, Low met with flight-director Chris Kraft, who verified the technical feasibility. At 0930 Low, Gilruth, and Kraft agreed to present the idea to Werner von Braun. They flew to Huntsville to meet von Braun and others at 1430 that afternoon. The lunar orbit plan was tentatively approved that day. Just 4 months later, Apollo 8 orbited the moon, sending back the first photograph of an Earthrise over another world.

Think what Low accomplished in the time that many present-day bureaucrats take to select their fonts and backgrounds. He achieved consensus on a billion-dollar decision about one of the most complex engineering projects of all time, with enormous implications for national security. PowerPoint cannot help you do that.

In current-day NASA, the need to cram complex facts into PowerPoint's limited format may have contributed to poor decisions in the Columbia tragedy, according to a recent essay by the graphic designer, Edward Tufte.5 Tufte points out that the limited resolution of PowerPoint slides makes it impossible to fit in complex charts and graphs, or even full English sentences. As a result the intended meaning of a presentation may be obscured.

How can you make informed decisions like George Low's? The key seems to be to gather experts who are knowledgeable and passionate about the subject matter, and have them cooperatively discuss a series of questions designed to explore the limits of technical feasibility. They must strive to reach the best decision rather than to persuade each other. The Chicago Tribune1 quotes Sherry Turkle, from Massachusetts Institute of Technology: "a strong [PowerPoint] presentation is designed to close down debate, not open it up".

Design your presentations and your meetings to take advantage of the people gathered there, not to bore them. If everyone has set their remarks in stone ahead of time (all using the same templates) then there is little room for the comments of one to build on another, or for a new idea to arise collaboratively from the meeting. Homogeneity is great for milk, but not for ideas. Use visual aids to convey visual information: photographs, charts, or diagrams. But do not use them to give the impression that the matter is solved, wrapped up in a few bullet points.

I previously worked at NASA.
Peter Norvig

1. Keller J. Is PowerPoint the devil? Chicago Tribune Jan 22, 2003.
2. Parker I. Absolute Powerpoint. New Yorker May 28, 2001: 76.
3. Norvig P. The Gettysburg Powerpoint presentation. January, 1999 (accessed July 2, 2003).
4. Wade M. Decision that Apollo 8 should be a lunar orbital mission. SpaceDaily, June 26, 2002 (accessed July 2, 2003).
5. Tufte E. The cognitive style of PowerPoint. May, 2003 (accessed July 2, 2003).


October 4, 2003

Until being made redundant, I was working in investment banking as an associate in debt capital markets origination. As a function that situated between the corporate financiers and the capital markets people, we pretty much have to have good understanding and do the work of both of these other functions. One part of the work is that the directors and managing directors have to go out there to pitch for business... To pitch for business, you need a pitch presentation. That's where people like me come in.

For those who don't know, the pitch book is not something you laugh at! It's all of the following:

- size of a phone book,
- usefulness of a door stop,
- a complete waste of paper (obviously), energy (me and others who prepare it, the person who carries the multiple copies to the meeting and people who have to read it...), and
- prepared in meticulous details, refinement and up-to-date data and materials...

The whole point of the pitch book is that the presenter (our MD or whoever) is going to use it to overwhelm our client with the quality of the presentation, the qualification of our bank, the qualification of the team, track record of successful transactions, etc, etc... Unfortunately, every single last bank on this planet can and does produce piles of crap like ours...

So for the (potential) client, who'll meet with up to 10 different banks, they'll have 10 volumes of paper that can be distilled down to a single sheet of A4 paper! All they care about is the pricing of the deal - how much they got to pay and how cheaply they can get their financing. Our MD can walk in to the meeting with a single Excel table, listing out our bank's fee pricing, cost structure and of the proposed bond deal. That's all.... The even sadder thing is that most clients have already made up their minds who they're going to hire for the deals even before our MDs walk through the doors. All the clients want to know is to compare pricings and use other banks' pricings to ask for lower charges! (Naturally, banks who are not 'relationship banks' will try to undercut the 'relationship banks' with lower pricings to get into the deals...)

A full blown pitch presentation is around 45-50 pages! Some people go for something even larger than that which means the page-count goes up to 60-65 pages! Some MDs or directors are a little more realistic and ask for a smaller presentation which means anywhere between 20 to 30 pages (Imagine trying to distill what you usually say in 50 pages to half the number of pages!)

But why bother with a phonebook? That's because everybody is doing it! (This, of course, is a completely crazy mentality - we've got to do it because everyone else is doing it!! So it must be good!!) Every bank is trying to out-do the others with their impressive credentials and with the track records of deals, 'award-winning' research, etc...

Technically, the recommended length of time on a given slide is 45 seconds. (Yes, every bank has this down as part of their presentation training!) A 25-slide presentation will ‘cost’ less than 20 minutes, but will never last that long because shorter presentation just means more information cramped on each page. For a longer presentation (say 60 pages), it should last for 45 minutes. Here lays the problem - presentations are all color coordinated with each bank's corporate colors, which means that all the highlights, charts, tables and what not can only appear in certain colors. If you work for a bank with some boring corporate color scheme, you’d ended up with a lot of very boring looking pages, no matter how interesting the material you’ve on the slides.

On average, any given person can concentrate on such a presentation for less than 10 minutes before his/her attention drifts to something more interesting - lunch, dinner, evening out, men, ladies, weekend, last night’s entertainment, zoological resemblance of the guy sitting opposite, whatever! Therefore, each line has to be ‘punchy’, each phrase has to have a 'pick up' somewhere and each page has to end with an upbeat note. That’s the reason why people ended up using short phrases (not sentences) on the slides. While some people will remember what they have to say and simply refer to the slides for the precise numbers and such things, others literally read off each line - and we end up with some rather funny sounding presentations.

[EDIT] For a fuller description of how a pitch book is like and the kind of preparation required, please refer to the book from which I've quoted in my sig. (Rolfe, John & Troob, Peter, Monkey Business (Swinging Through the Wall Street Jungle), 2000) [/EDIT]


Link to Hexus.net Forum