Startups, massive corporations, governmental agencies, non-profits large and small. For more than two decades now, they’ve all been mistreating a common communications tool. Sadly, they’d never consider interacting without it, and they expect — and often demand — that others follow their misguided lead.

Raise of hands if you’ve guessed it: E-mail? Cell phones? Videos?

No, we’re going to talk about the tragically wrong, consistently unproductive use of… PowerPoint.

If you’re in the business of, well, anything at all, your hard drive is probably overflowing with them. Product descriptions. Business pitches. Reports. Overviews. Analyses. I just checked — my laptop’s holding 437 — and I’m the type who deletes stuff. Google’s showing me 321,000 mentions of “Death by PowerPoint.” And this Wikipedia article claims that it may have even played a role in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. Some Military divisions have stopped using it for briefings because it encourages a watered-down presentation of critical facts. And that gets people killed.

But this isn’t a rant about Microsoft or its addicts, because it’s not all bad. There are plenty of valid uses for a PowerPoint presentation, once you learn that it’s not a one-size-fits-all tool. To refine that statement: The platform may be universal, but your implementation better not be.

It all begins when I ask, innocently, what type of presentation a client is asking me to create. Cue the chirping crickets. Silence and confusion. “What type? You know, um, a company overview. Like…a PowerPoint.” Two minutes later, as I finish my quick shpeil, I get a terrifically consistent response: “Gee, I never thought of it like that. Wow. Makes sense.”

You see, this question’s not rocket surgery; it’s an odd, unfortunate phenomenon wherein people just don’t consider the recipient’s mindset. So here’s a rare blatant appeal: do me a favor and share the following breakdown with anyone you know who expresses himself or herself in business. Let’s get together to save everyone a serious hassle. It’s short, easy, and simply necessary.

So here we go: More than 95% of all presentations can be dropped into one of only three buckets.

The Meeting Presentation. The absolute worst thing you can do, ever, is walk into a meeting and fire up a 28-slide presentation full of bulleted text and cliché clip-art. It triggers the basic Pavlovian response: Eyes glaze over and attention drops by half. businessman and businesswoman exhausted during a meetingAs the third or fourth text-heavy slide appears, the same familiar question pops into everyone’s head, consciously or subconsciously: I can read it myself, buddy. If you sent it in advance, I already did. Or I will afterward. Why are we sitting here like it’s story time in Comfy Conference Room Corner? The only assumption is that you, the presenter, don’t know your stuff well enough to simply present your case, and need to read from a script.

The solution? Create slides as triggers. In almost all cases, each should have a maximum of two sentences (first the basic point and then the implication), in a nice big font. And most should have a bold, clear, consistent graphic that gets the idea across — with color, drama, humor, or a technical (but helpful!) diagram. The idea here is to simply use the slides to guide a discussion, not to replace it. You probably don’t need more than a dozen, and you can often skip the bullets.

The benefits? Eye contact where the audience is looking at you instead of the screen, and a clear impression that you are a master of your message, able to recite, explain, and debate without employing a teleprompter that, disturbingly, everyone can see.

The Bloated Brochure: the other extreme. PowerPoint is great for exactly one kind of (unfortunate but necessary) digital brochure, and absolutely not for the other.

It can be a good platform as a standalone volume, helpful when you aren’t going to be there as chaperone when it’s read. That’s when you legitimately need to present a full-blown arsenal of substantial explanations, charts, diagrams, images, high-level figures, definitions, etc. Using animations that actually help tell the story (not to simply have items appear one by one in a drunken dance or vaporous explosion) is an art form, but not tough to master when you give it some thought and planning. These heavy digital tomes are often a necessary evil, but as long as the viewer has a business motivation to read it, it’s probably your best option. If he doesn’t, you’re sunk.

But as a quick overview? You’ve got the wrong tool: Why force your viewer to click every minute or two in order to follow along? Why keep him from easily skimming or, or taking a second look at something you wrote, without needing to hop linearly across a series of slides? And it doesn’t take a designer to question the aesthetics of tiny text divided into six bullets, slide after slide after slide. You are creating a superficial read because a careful read is unpleasant.

What’s much, much better? A cleanly designed, elegant PDF two-pager. You can do it “right” with a professional graphic designer, or even in-house, leveraging the fairly powerful design tools in MS-Word (you know —those other 90% of its features that most people don’t ever use). A two-pager is easy to read, it’s painless to revisit something you saw a moment ago, and for tree-killers, it’s MUCH more efficient to print and read than those 20 slides that either represent a good, sturdy branch of some sacrificial elm, or yield shrunk-down tiny boxes that aren’t simply indigestible. Either way, it’ll be more appreciated, a simpler read and a bit more classy.

So that’s the plan. To give some power to your points, do it right and create: (a) Meeting Presentations that work as triggers, (b) when truly needed, bloated, mammoth prezzos as stand-alone documents full of details well-aided by animated, graphic-intensive elements and extensive text. (c) And finally, consider ditching the deck and instead send out a non-PPT overview PDF for easy, aesthetic reading.

Putting a little thought into choosing the right mode will make the difference between the yawn/skim and the “ah, gotcha!” impression you’re looking for.

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