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I’ve been writing this week on demos and presentations.

Monday I wrote about Joel Spolsky’s wonderful demo of Fog Creek’s new products. Joel did one other thing at his presentation that I found very interesting. He didn’t introduce himself (nor was he introduced by anyone else).

Pretty much everyone in the audience knew who “Joel Spolsky” was, but few would recognize him by sight. It didn’t matter; from the context, it was quickly clear that the speaker — and bug reporter — was Joel. (Just in case someone was still unsure, when he filed the bug report his name was on the onscreen form.) I’m pretty sure that if you went to that invitation-only demo, you know about Joel.

I wonder in my own presentations how much to say about myself, assuming I haven’t been introduced. One school of thought says, “What you’re selling is your credibility, so you need to establish your bona fides up front.” I don’t buy that, in most cases. If I’m part of a panel discussion, that’s one thing, but in most of my presentations people are coming to hear me. Over time, I’ve eliminated any self-introduction entirely, other than my name on the title or walk-in slide. I may start by saying, “Hi, I’m Steven Levy,” but then I jump into the initial content.

I’ve learned that people are there for the content. When I say they’re coming to hear me, what I mean is not that they’re looking to me to deliver the word from the mountaintop, but rather they’re coming because the topic interests them and they have some idea who I am, rather than walking into a room where the topic is known but the presenter is an unknown factor. I may weave occasional “bona fides” facts into my talk — e.g., “I saw in my decade and a half at Microsoft that….”

I sat through a demo Wednesday where the speaker spent the first ten minutes telling us about his life — and was proud of presenting himself in this manner. I found it profoundly uninteresting — and worse, a waste of my time. I am determined not to inflict that upon others.

So I appreciated Joel simply getting up and starting to speak. We knew who he was, even if we couldn’t have picked him out of a lineup. We’re ready to listen; now give us something worth listening to.

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I’m writing this week about presentations and demos.

I wrote Monday about Joel Spolsky demoing his product “in passing,” without overtly appearing to demo it. It was a terrific idea, brilliantly carried off.

However, few of us demo products whose use can be woven into the presentation itself. (Think of demoing PowerPoint itself for the ultimate you-can-demo-it-without-appearing-to-demo-it product.)

I designed one of the early Microsoft demos for Internet Explorer. Version 3.0 was the first version that was really a usable browser. The demo didn’t sell Internet Explorer per se; rather, it told a story about how we’d be using the web in the future to shop. Internet Explorer was simply there as demoers walked potential customers through buying a shirt — a welcome-back video, personalized pages, a rotating image so you could see the shirt from all sides, a checkout cart that remembered your information, etc.

These are all things we take for granted today, but nobody was doing them in 1995 because the technology wasn’t ready. People expected we’d get to something such as we showed, but they were amazed to see it working. As a byproduct, they took away two important messages that we delivered subliminally (and then probably pounded into them in what we said afterward): Internet Explorer was now Netscape’s equal, and you should look to Microsoft technology if you wanted to ride the next wave on the web.

I loved giving the demo (and teaching others how to give it), because I wasn’t demoing technology; rather, I was walking through a scenario that had everyone fascinated — it was 1995, after all.

I hated traveling somewhere to give the demo, because it required carrying two 15-pound portable computers, a network mini-hub, and other gear, in addition to schlepping my luggage (I hadn’t heard of wheels on luggage yet) and wearing my suit jacket so it wouldn’t get wrinkled. But in the end it was worthwhile.

So while it’s rare that you’re demonstrating something where the setting itself can provide context for your product or offering, take advantage of it when and if you can.

More importantly, consider the lesson here — people care about scenarios, not products. And more than just scenarios, people care about scenarios that match what they do in their life — work life, home life, commute life, whatever. Don’t demonstrate features. Don’t demo your product. Solve a problem. The trick is to pose the problem with as little setup as you can get away with.

Demoing an app for tracking software bugs? What setup could be better than a bug that shows itself to your audience.

Demoing a browser? I showed the “Internet lifestyle” in living color and real-live-before-your-eyes bits, and let the audience make their own connections between an experience they wanted and the technology I was showing.

You’ve all seen the cartoons about the door-to-door carpet cleaner salesman who dumps mud on your carpet. You don’t have to go that far… but if you want to sell me a vacuum cleaner, show me how it cleans up a mess with no fuss and no work. (I hate vacuuming, and I have to vacuum the house when I get done writing this article.)


Friday I’ll talk about one other aspect of presentations that came up in Joel Spolsky’s demo.

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I’ll write this week about demos and presentations, based on a terrific software demo I saw Thursday.

It was delivered by Joel Spolsky, the brains behind Fog Creek Software and a brilliant thinker about various computer issues.

To set the scene, he and his team were doing a roadshow tour of Fog Creek’s new releases, the unfortunately named FogBugz 8.0 and Kiln. FogBugz is a terrific software-project-management tool, and Kiln is geekware beyond what I want to write about here. (It looks like pretty good geekware; if you develop software for a large team, you might want to check it out.)

For the 30 minutes preceding the scheduled start of Joel’s presentation, the screen showed a cartoonish countdown timer with a Fog Creek logo. Right on time, Joel heads up to the rostrum, the timer goes to zero… and it crashes/bluescreens!

Joel looks at it as the crash result fills the screen with white-text-on-blue-background gobbledygook. He says something to the effect of “Sorry, it shouldn’t do that. I’ve seen this before. Let me just enter a bug to make sure it gets fixed.” He does, and starts his presentation.

A minute later, he gets a popup EMail “toast” — that blue ghost-thing that Outlook pops up at the lower right of your screen until you get smart and turn it off — saying it’s already fixed. We all can read it, and he too gets distracted by it. He looks at us and says, “I don’t think it’s fixed. At least the developer’s on line and working today. Sorry, let me just see what he’s talking about.” He goes into FogBugz, pulls up the referenced “fixed” code, and says — to an audience made up mostly of programmers — “That doesn’t look fixed to me. Sometimes, you just have to do this stuff yourself.” Now totally distracted — but with the programmers all staring at the buggy code, of course — he changes a line of code and says, “That’ll probably work now.”

Anyway, as you’ve probably figured out, it’s all staged. He keeps interrupting his talk to look at the bug, fix it, check his fix with another programmer, and so on. Meanwhile, he’s demonstrating key features of his product in a context that couldn’t have been attained in a straight demo, the audience rapt with attention. (Every programmer has had the experience of his or her code crashing during an important demo.)

He pulled it off superbly. He never winked at the “joke,” nor did he ever acknowledge that it was staged; rather, he trusted his audience to figure it out and go for the ride along with him.

Wednesday, the idea of demoing-without-demoing… which isn’t some Zen concept, but an occasional opportunity from which we can take away lessons for more quotidian demos.

It’s Friday: Dumb UI of the Week

First, the dumbness. Second, lessons from this dumbnosity.

I went to put in my Visa info on a site, as shown in the picture. Note that the MasterCard radio button is selected by default… though I didn’t see that at the time. I know my name, of course, and even the card’s expiration date, but I had to dig the card out of my wallet to put in the number. I did all that, filled in a few other items, and clicked OK.

The site told me my credit card didn’t match the type selected… and made me reenter my credit card number.

Dumb, inexcusably dumb on three-and-a-half counts.

1) You can algorithmically determine which card it is from the number itself; there is no reason whatsoever to ask someone to tell you want kind of card it is. (What, you think this will help cut down fraud? You don’t think fraudsters know the card algorithms better than any normal person?) Go here for an explanation of how it works. So stop asking for information you already have!

2) If you insist for some reason on a human being selecting one of these radio buttons, don’t start with one selected! Yes, that violates the normal rules for radio buttons… so see dumbnosity #1. Or don’t do it with radio buttons; make each clickable and put a big green border around the one selected, or something.

3) When it give me the error message, it erased my card number. So I had to dig back into my wallet, pull out the card…. You can use very simple on-page JavaScript to determine that the card and number don’t match, so don’t refresh the page because of this error. But this error shouldn’t exist to begin with (dumbnosity #1 again).

3.5) Why not make PayPal an option? I don’t want to keep giving all these websites my credit card info. Each time I do this, there’s an opportunity for a costly mistake, one more place a security breach can happen. With PayPal (or Google Checkout, I suppose), security is much more locked down. Sure, PayPal could have a breach also, but if I have 20 places that have my card number and can screw up vs. a single entity in that situation, the latter is a lot safer. (And it’s not like I’m increasing the risk of PayPal exposure, since I already have a PayPal account, as I suspect most regular Internet shoppers do. If PayPal exposes my data, the harm is the same whether I use them once or have 20 merchants that they serve.)

I do recognize that PayPal sometimes charges merchants slightly higher fees than the credit card companies, and that it’s a pseudo-bank that isn’t regulated like a bank. I’m not saying that merchants should absolutely offer a PayPal option, just that it’s well worth considering. It has pluses and minuses that I won’t go into here. As a consumer, I personally would like that option in addition to using a credit card. Indeed, I have backed away from buying at a few sites because they didn’t offer PayPal and I didn’t really want to give them my credit card… and I live part time on a small island in the Pacific Northwest with no retail stores other than food markets, a small auto- and boat-parts shop, and a lumberyard/hardware store, which means I need to either buy stuff on line or spend most of a day and $30+ to get on a ferry and then drive 20 miles to a shopping center. So I need to shop on line!

Lessons From Dumbness

1) Think first. If you’re asking for information from a user and the user believes you already have this information, the user will be angry and will trust you less. This principle holds whether you’re asking for data on the web, gathering IT requirements, interviewing (whether interviewee or interviewer), and so on.

2) Push back on dumbnosity asked of you. The developer who put together this page a) should have foreseen at least dumbnosities #2 and #3, and it’s not inconceivable he or she should have spotted #1. C’mon, even if you didn’t know about #1, didn’t you at least suspect that this was the case? Surely you’ve encountered sites that don’t ask you what kind of card you have! The developer should have questioned this requirement in the name of customer friendliness. Developers who don’t think beyond the strict confines of “I do exactly what the specs say” aren’t adding sufficient value in these difficult times, putting both their own jobs and their employers at risk. If you don’t push back when you spot little mistakes, you’ll have neither the practice nor the credibility to push back on the big ones. This isn’t just a problem for developers, either.

3) If you’re managing, remember to specify the problem, not the solution. Here the surface problem was “capture the dude’s credit card info,” not “step 1, put up three card logos and make the user choose.” But the larger problem was “find a secure way that the user can pay for stuff.” Stated that way, the PayPal strategy becomes an option in the solution space.

TTFN From My Island

Okay, it’s not my personal island, though often it’s quiet enough to pretend. But as I write this, the sun is out, I’m watching two sailboats make their way across the water in front of my deck, in the last hour I’ve seen a young (no white head or tail yet) bald eagle soar by less than 100 feet away, and I know I’ll get yet another spectacular sunset over the water this evening. And there’s no traffic, no traffic lights, no cell phone coverage or TV to clutter up the day, decent Internet bandwidth, and most of all a slight slowing of time, room for an “ahhhh” between some of the tick-tick-ticks. And now a raven’s calling. (They don’t say “Nevermore,” but rather sound like a crow with a cold.)

I only miss the city sometimes.

Have a great weekend.

A Semi-Off-Topic Post for a Friday

The off-topic part is that it involves baseball. The “semi-” part is that it’s about leadership, an all-too-rare quality.

Morgan Ensberg is a former slightly-above-average infielder for the Houston Astros and a few other teams. But he’s also a keen observer of the game.

(Related question: Why do great players rarely make great managers? There are exceptions — Joe Torre in baseball and Phil Jackson in basketball were above average though not great players — but by and large, the most successful managers or coaches were mediocre as players. And yes, this is a relevant question, your honor.)

He describes a baseball problem in part 1 of this two-parter. If you’re into baseball, read it because it’s a really good problem. If you think baseball is a simple game where the sole tactical issue is figuring when to bring in a relief pitcher, read it because it offers a good look into how complex tactically the game really is when played at this level.

He offers the answer — at least, his answer — in part 2. If you’re curious about the tactical problem he posed in part 1, read it all. If you want a great insight into leadership, skip down to the heading “What I Really Just Did….”

The manager’s real job in this situation is to instill confidence, to remind the players to believe in themselves and their abilities, to move quickly and surely and not second-guess themselves. Having a manager watch over your shoulder, ready to pounce on any mistake, is the surest way to make mistakes — maybe not the particular mistakes the manager is watching for, but the mistake of withdrawing, the mistake of trying-not-to-fail rather than striving-to-succeed-and-risking-failure.

The prosecutor who brags about never having lost a case in court makes sure that only slam-dunk cases go to trial; how many miscreants go free or plead to minor crimes because this prosecutor is unwilling to place the mission of determining facts in the hands of the jurors? The manager who claims never to have made a bad hire may never had made a great hire, either, because great hires are often risks. (That said, good managers will have more success with all of their hires, and good prosecutors will win cases that bad prosecutors lose.)

Why Don’t Great Players Make Great Managers (Coaches)?

Ensberg was never a great player. There are two ways to make it at the big league level. One way, the one everyone sees, is to have enormous talent. The other is to be of average talent but become a student of the game, taking advantage of situational knowledge and small mistakes. (Exhibit A, 47-year-old pitcher Jamie Moyer still getting folks out with a fastball that is “fast” only in that it’s not as slow as his other pitches.) One of those situations, incidentally, is getting along with other players, especially those more talented than you.

Come time to manage, and your athletic skills don’t matter. What does matter is your knowledge of the game, the ability to apply and transmit that knowledge, and your ability to get along with and motivate highly talented — and highly paid — athletes. Who’s more likely to be a successful manager, a superstar like Alex Rodriguez or a player like Morgan Ensberg?

The same is true in business. Many people who are enormously effective as managers weren’t necessarily the best salesperson, the best programmer, the best attorney. People management is a skill, and an art, that is not necessarily correlated with the manager’s skill in the area being managed.

To get the worst of both worlds, take your most productive individual contributor and make her a manager, simply because she’s so productive. All of a sudden she won’t be as productive because she now spends time managing rather than producing, and there’s not certainty she’ll be able to teach or inspire others to produce at a higher level.

It’s hard for many organizations to recognize that leadership is a special skill, not something you simply glue onto a top producer. Both managerial and leadership skills can be taught, and learned, but they don’t necessarily come with the original package; they’re extras.

They’re extras well worth paying for, however.

As Ensberg’s “manager” says, “Alright guys.  No problem here.”

What Do Fake Rolexes, Overpriced Wine, and iPhones Have in Common?

What do fake Rolexes, overpriced wine, and iPhones have in common?

They’re sold the same way to the same types of consumers.

Luckily, the wine and iPhones haven’t hit the spam-bucket the way watches have recently. Watch spam is probably running a close third to 419 spam (“Esteemed sir, I am requesting for urgent business relationship….”) and fake ED drugs. That said, the subject or opening lines of Rolex spam are instructive:

Cheap watches that still elevate your social status.
Tired of being jealous of your friend who owns a Submariner SS model?
Your friend will recognize the Rolex on your wrist.
Watches for people who want to live a luxury life but spend less.

(I read spam so you don’t have to!)

It’s easy to see that these fakes are aspirational goods.

Actually, a real Rolex is an aspirational good too. It keeps time no better than a $15 Casio, though it’s a tad more elegant… and considerably heavier. But the price is so out there — $8,000 and up, I think — that even the biggest poseurs recognize it’s an aspirational good. They’re not fooling themselves.

Fake Rolexes, overpriced wine, and iPhones are little marketing marvels of self-deception.

A friend who’s a high-end wine distributor, and who knows good wine, recently attended a tasting of “mid-price” wines, bottles that might sell for $100 in a restaurant. My friend wrote about the various wines (ellipses omitted)

Dull, a bit thick. Their Chablis was tasteless…also dull. Horrible. Are they kidding? Many of the wines were not sound, going through a secondary fermentation. Many were oxidized. The guy next to me was raving about a chardonnay that was oxidized and [expletive deleted]. The emperor has no clothes.

That’s the way of the world sometimes. The Emperor’s clothiers did rather well, as I recall.

The shop in question is in effect selling iPods and iPhones. Both of those devices are glosses on stuff that had been done before, wrapped in nicer packaging and sold as aspirational goods. People want them — and pay a premium for them — because of the cachet that attaches to them. It’s market positioning that Steve Jobs is brilliant at. I may knock the products as overpriced, but I’m truly in awe of Jobs’ marketing savvy and sense of what consumers desire… or can be convinced to desire.

To most people, wine is an aspirational good, like iPhones, like (fake) Rolexes. People aspire to possessing and using (consuming) it, not just as a visible signal to friends, acquaintances, and random observers, but as a symbol to themselves that they have achieved a certain level of fulfillment and status. For many people buying wine, as long as the liquid is not actually vinegar, the label is what they’re consuming; the product in the bottle is secondary.

No one buys the cheapest thing on the menu, as my friend has reminded me a few times. Pick a price point for an evening out. “I would pay $80 for a bottle of wine at this restaurant.” It’s the aspirational thing, not a particular $80 wine. Show the purchaser the menu, and many who think $80 will buy the $90 or $100 bottle. They’re celebrating something — themselves, basically — and they don’t want to buy the cheapest celebration.

The wine shop figured this out. I’m sure the owner knows the wines are overpriced for their quality level. He also knows that it’s a small number of people who understand that quality level, people such as my friend (I sure don’t when it comes to wine).

He’s selling them a vision of their level and status as reflected through some fermented grapes. The skill with which the grapes have been fermented is only a small part of what he’s selling. Think of it as a different version of love-him-or-hate-him wine guru Robert Parker’s rating scale,where wines he likes score 90+ on a 50-100 scale. In the aspirational wine scale, 90% of the score is aspiration and 10% is actual wine goodness. If a wine hits 100% on the aspirational scale and 20% on the taste scale, it gets a score of (90% x 100) + (10% x 20) = 90 + 2 = 92, which Mr. Parker would consider a fairly good wine.

That, I think, is the kind of rating scale people use in evaluating any non-necessary good; the functional aspects are only part of the score, sometimes a small part. Otherwise a Casio and a Rolex would score about the same… or maybe the Casio would score higher, since it doesn’t drag your wrist down. (On the other hand, I recall a James Bond story where Bond, James Bond wrapped his Rolex around his knuckles to punch someone out; maybe for those in a certain line of work the Rolex would get some points as a weapon. I hear Robert Ludlum’s next book is called The Bourne Chronograph.)

A fake Rolex, an iPhone, and a $100-at-a-restaurant bottle of mediocre wine represent three different colors across the spectrum of aspirational goods. The fake Rolex is just that, a fake; the intent to deceive is outward only, the aspiration naked. The mediocre wine contains both self-deception and outward deception; the buyer pays for something where price (a/k/a reputation) is pretty much the only indicator of quality the buyer understands. The iPhone is a quality device that works rather well; the buyer is overpaying a bit for the cachet, and often self-deception (“I’m cool, I have an iPhone”) is greater than outward deception (“there goes another iPhone geek”).

Indeed for some the iPhone is the new Rolex, a fashion accessory as well as a utility device. The difference is that the spread between utility cost and actual price is thousands of dollars for the Rolex and a few bucks for the iPhone.

If you’re on the marketing side, positioning your product as an aspirational good, if applicable, is a great way to increase profit margins, though it may or may not maximize total profit.

If you’re the buyer, it never hurts to consider explicitly how much extra you’re willing to pay for cachet rather than pay for play.


For the record:

  • I don’t have an iPhone, but I do have a wool-and-cashmere sport jacket I wear on some client visits that is priced above utility cost.
  • I know very little about wine, though I can tell the difference between Two-Buck Chuck and an extraordinary 1988 Chateauneuf-du-Pape my friend shared with me last month; I rarely buy a bottle in a restaurant, but if I do I’ll keep it under $40 because I simply don’t know enough to warrant spending above that point. I’m content with the quality of most wines at that price point, even when I can tell the difference.
  • I do not have a Rolex, real or fake, but I do have a Citizen watch that cost $129 fifteen years ago; I bought it because part of the money went to support Dennis Connor’s America’s Cup team. Yup, that’s why I bought it. Really.

So I certainly fall into the aspirational-good trap myself. As I get older, though, I try to be more aware of it, more cognizant of how people are marketing to me.

And if I see one more newspaper article that confuses cachet (ka-SHAY, positive reputation) with cache (kash, a store or stockpile), I’ll scream.

Yet Another Stupid Attack on PowerPoint

This article from Harvard Business Review attacking PowerPoint is one of the least sensible ones I’ve seen. Somehow, I assume that folks at HBR have some real-world and not just B-school “B” experience (as in the “B” in HBR). Indeed, David Silverman has written some very good posts in the past, so this one just blows me away. Excerpts:

PowerPoint has consumed the best years of too many young lives…. PowerPoint is fundamentally flawed because it intrinsically isn’t suited to the tasks it is put to…. The real problem with PowerPoint is users’ unreasonable expectations. Simply put, people try to do way too much with it…. [Y]ou cannot win. PowerPoint will make a muddle of your ideas, and you have no choice in the matter.

So how is this PowerPoint’s fault? My car can supposedly go 100 MPH; would it be the car’s fault were I to drive 100 MPH?

Then he presents a graphic slide — ugly, but that’s besides the point — and writes:

It took me about four hours of fiddling and fighting with PowerPoint to make the picture. (Just reformatting it for this blog post took me 30 minutes.)

Aha! If that graphic took you four hours, David, the problem is that you don’t know how to use PowerPoint. And it’s inconceivable that it took you 30 minutes to reformat it for the post.

So I reproduced it. In PowerPoint. Time to do the entire drawing: 16 minutes. Time to insert it into this article? 47 seconds. (By the way, I did not simply paste in his slide and draw mine on top of it, which might have saved a couple of minutes. Rather, I looked at it and reproduced it. And did it all on a laptop, albeit with an external mouse.)

I wasted 17 minutes to prove a point, I suppose. Or to prove a PowerPoint.

The business problem isn’t PowerPoint any more than the speeding problem is a car. It’s user error. Most of us drive safely and sanely — at least those who aren’t texting while driving — and there are many businesspeople and presenters who use PowerPoint very effectively.

Stop blaming the shoes for the fault of the feet.

(And David, if you’re ever out in Seattle, stop by for a tutorial on how to use PowerPoint.)

How to Get Fired

Nah, this isn’t about how to screw up at work. Rather, former pro baseball player Morgan Ensberg has written a terrific story about the day he got fired (they call it “released” in baseball).

People get fired. People have setbacks in their life. It’s not always their fault or within their control.

What matters is what you do when it happens.

“PowerPoint Makes Us Stupid,” Part II

Yesterday, I shared a slide from a New York Times article about the use and misuse of presentation software. I railed about the misuse of PowerPoint, offering four real issues instead of the shibboleth put forth in the Times article:

  1. Bad presentation design is making us stupid.
  2. Bad presenters are making us stupid.
  3. The use of bullet points without verbal explication and detail is making us stupid.
  4. Our relying on this stuff unquestioningly is making us stupid.

Someone asked, is there an appropriate way to use this particular slide?

Yes, there are two ways in which it could form a valuable part of a presentation.

The Image as Visual Cue

First, I might have shown it as a brief visual while saying, “The world is a complicated place. We have dozens of systems, each of which affects other systems. We’ve created a situation where [crossfade to a butterfly image] a butterfly that flaps its wings in Szechuan may create a storm in St. Louis. The question is, How do we do X in a world with such complex second- and third- and fourth-order effects?”

In other words, the slide would have been up for about eight seconds — enough time to register that it’s showing a mess while making it clear that no one is expected to glean content from it. I know that no one will register what I’m saying while that mess is onscreen, so I would quickly segue to a simpler image that serves as an easily recognized metaphor for the mess. By the time I get to my real point, “How do we do X…,” people are listening to me again — and have a clear context for what I’m about to propose or discuss.

By the way, don’t say “You don’t have to read this.” You can’t control that; people will try to read it, and make sense of it. Rather, cut away quickly, and recognize that nothing you say while it’s onscreen will be understood or retained.

The Image as Analytical Tool

I might also have shown it as a precursor to tracing one of these paths. Show it for five seconds, then zoom in tightly on one aspect of it, such as this.

(I don’t have the original, so all I can do is play with the low-resolution version from the Times.)

“Now let’s look at an example, such as the role population condition and beliefs plays in the larger system. As you can see, there are numerous conditions feeding it — and right above it, many conditions that themselves feed just one of the conditions that influences population conditions and beliefs.”

Then I might zoom to some of the items that this particular thing influences: “So you can see how it affects perception of whatever the heck that small type says, which is affected by X and Y, which also feed into each other. Yadda yadda yadda. The point is that the world is interconnected and complicated. If you make a small change here, you’re not done; that change affects pretty much every other factor on this whirlwind of a chart, and [butterfly slide] just like the butterfly in Szechuan….”

After the presentation, or right after the paragraph above if I wanted to go through it in detail, I’d hand out a printed version of this slide. I wouldn’t hand it out in advance because people would get too caught up in trying to figure it out instead of listening.

From a presentation standpoint, I would probably rework the original to fade out every line I wasn’t focused on, highlighting (and leaving readable) at most a handful of items and the lines connecting them. I’ve done a quickie version on the last image here by drawing shapes around all the things I wanted to minimize, setting the fill color to white and transparency to 20%. They’re properly faded on the version in PowerPoint, though it’s hard to see on the reduced JPEG at right.


The problem is neither the slide nor PowerPoint, but rather how they are used. I don’t think I’d use this slide as my first choice in presenting this concept, but I could make it work.

“PowerPoint Makes Us Stupid” — True or False?

There’s a lot of brouhaha today stemming from a report in the New York Times about PowerPoint negatively affecting the US military apparatus. Super-smart graphics maven Nancy Duarte, for example, chimes in here.

A lot of discussion centers on the complex chart topping the NY Times article. Ex-McKinsey consultant and PowerPoint guru explains (and partly defends) the chart here.

Most of this noise, I think, is sadly misguided.

First, PowerPoint is being used synonymously with “presentation software,” with an undercurrent of Microsoft-bashing. Exactly the same charts, good and bad, can be created with Apple’s Keystone, Open Office, and so on.

Second, presentation software doesn’t make us stupid. Taking that comment out of context is more stupid than the comment. It’s a great sound bite, but like most sound bites it lacks substance. It’s like someone quoting the Bible with “money is the root of all evil.” The original quote is “the love of money is the root of all evil” — and even that appears to be a mistranslation of “the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil.”

No, what’s making us stupid in the field of presentation software — and I don’t argue the “making us stupid” part — is twofold. Bad presentation design is making us stupid. Bad presenters are making us stupid. The use of bullet points without verbal explication and detail is making us stupid. Most of all, our relying on this stuff unquestioningly is making us stupid. To wit:

Bad presentation design is making us stupid: Nancy Duarte touches on this aspect, as does Edward Tufte. PowerPoint and its ilk are tools designed to support a presentation, not replace it. As numerous presentation specialists have said, presentation software works best when the images augment and provide a visual context to what the presenter is saying. Presenters who expect the presentation itself to carry the content are part of the problem.

Now sometimes there is deep content that goes up on the screen. Whenever I reviewed budgets or sales numbers in a group, for example, I threw them up on a screen, whether from Excel or PowerPoint. (I used Excel if we were working solely on the numbers, PowerPoint if this data was part of a larger discussion.) And then we took considerable time to understand, study, and comment on the data. Having it onscreen helped me or others point to specific items with everyone in the room understanding what was being pointed out. In other words, even here the data played second chair to the discussion. I didn’t flash this stuff and move on.

Likewise, it’s been years since I used bullet points for anything other than a meeting’s-end (or training-session’s end) summary. Bullet points are fine in this context, because the people in the room have context. They don’t present information; they help people organize information they already have received.

If you’re presenting, you carry the message. Let the visual image augment it and help make it stick. The exception is detailed data — which should also be available to participants in print or on their laptops, if possible, so they don’t have to squint at the screen.

Bad presenters are making us stupid: If you read your slides to the attendees, shame on you. But that’s only part one of a two-part sin….

The use of bullet points without verbal explication and detail is making us stupid: If you put up information-bearing bullet points without further explanation, shame on you. (A summary has — or had — further explanation; so does an agenda, which also might look like bullet points.) Bullet points are like headlines; use the headlines to highlight the story, not replace the story. I like Twitter, but its 140-character streams don’t carry a lot of information; look behind the sound bites, or texting bytes.

Here’s where the military, according to the article and the quoted book Fiasco, got in trouble. Bullet points aren’t information; they are the headlines surrounding the information cache. If you can’t open the cache, there’s no “there” there.

If you need to convey highly detailed information, the best format is a written document. That’s Word, not PowerPoint. If you’re trying to motivate people, encourage discussion, or convey core information, then use your presentation skills — which is not PowerPoint, but youPoint.

Our relying on this stuff unquestioningly is making us stupid: Sound bites make us stupid, because we stop thinking, stop analyzing, stop looking into them. Too many PowerPoint presentations, unsupported by the speaker, are nothing more than a succession of sound bites. Above, I called shame on the presenters for doing this. Here, I call shame on us for allowing it.

That doesn’t mean you have to interrupt, though sometimes you should. Rather, make sure you recognize that you’re hearing/seeing a sound bite; if that’s all the presenter is giving you, make it your business to go behind the screens and gather the information yourself before making a decision, whether that means exchanging mail or having an offline discussion with the speaker or going to the source material.

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