Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Ban It Now!

Friends Don't Let Friends Use PowerPoint

by Thomas A Stewart

Fortune (February 05 2001)

Nearly a decade ago I met with Jack Welch in the office he keeps in Manhattan, high up in Rockefeller Center. I'd just made a swing around the company, visiting GE businesses in must-see spots like Erie, Pennsylvania, Schenectady, New York, and Burkville, Alabama.

"What did you learn?" Welch asked as we sat at a round table.

"Well", I began, "I saw how GE could save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year". His alert-status instantly ratcheted up. I continued: "Ban overheads".

He laughed: "You should have seen how much they cost before we got Macs".

Neither of us knew it, but we were seeing the first signs of an epidemic that threatens the cerebrums of business more than bovine spongiform encephalopathy does Elsie and her ilk. GE had those Macs (since replaced with PCs) because Macs, and at the time only Macs, could run an application called PowerPoint.

The time has come to think the unthinkable, say the unsayable, and then, gulp, do the undoable: Ban PowerPoint. Make up one last slide that reads: FRIENDS DON'T LET FRIENDS USE POWERPOINT. Then stop. Just say no. Whip inflation now. Expunge it. Find the application. Select it with the mouse. Drag it to the trash. Then make sure your machine empties it.

Here's why.

WHY BAN POWERPOINT? It's a monopoly.

PowerPoint was the brainchild of a company called Forethought, which Microsoft bought in 1987. Programmers for the Evil Empire took the application, then Mac-specific, made a PC version, steadily improved it, and put it into Office. There is now no realistic alternative. The other day someone at IBM said, "I think Lotus" - which IBM owns - "makes some kind of presentation software". But he couldn't remember its name - and he joined IBM in the Lotus acquisition. (It's called Freelance Graphics. There are other applications, including one from Corel, the limping maker of WordPerfect. Microsoft just invested in Corel, keeping it afloat and creating the simulacrum of competition.)

WHY BAN POWERPOINT? It's a monopoly. It's inescapable.

I go to a lot of conferences, do a lot of speaking. I used to use no graphics, but that meant I got a zero where speaker-evaluation forms ask the audience to rate the speaker's graphics, and it was bringing down my grade. So like any student who studies for the test rather than for the joy of learning, I learned to use acetate graphics and an overhead projector. But these days conference organizers say, "We'll put them on PowerPoint for you. We want a uniform look."

WHY BAN POWERPOINT? It's a monopoly. It's inescapable. It's monotonous.

Why in the world would you want a uniform look? The price of giving a lot of speeches is having to listen to a lot of them. They're all the same. One speaker finishes, his last slide saying thank you and giving his e-mail address. There is applause. The lights go up, he unplugs his laptop and leaves the podium, the emcee introduces the next speaker. She walks up, mumbles inconsequentially while she plugs in her laptop. The lights dim and she shows her first slide. It reads good morning. This starts at eight, goes to twelve, resumes at one, and ends at five. Somewhere a bird must be singing.

WHY BAN POWERPOINT? It's intellectually suspect.

Never put more than three bullet points on a PowerPoint slide, experts say. It confuses people. Keep it simple. You know, the way life is. In "The American Scholar", Emerson warned against the tendency to believe something just because it is written down. How much greater the danger when it is also boiled down.

WHY BAN POWERPOINT? It's intellectually suspect. Complexity exists, really. It disguises tone of voice and point of view. In real life, bullet points kill.

I was at a conference in Boston when a speaker proposed as a best practice something that was directly the opposite of advice given by a speaker the day before. An irate member of the audience rose during the Q&A and insisted that this be sorted out then and there. "I paid good money to come here", he said, "and I want to know what to do". The speaker had no slide giving the right answer - "Think for yourself".

Nor does PowerPoint allow for idiosyncrasy. See, for example, what happens to the Gettysburg Address when it's converted into a PowerPoint presentation, . Only by thinking and acting differently from the competition can you perform differently from it.

WHY BAN POWERPOINT? It's intellectually suspect. It's business television.

If this is Thursday, this must be ... Loews Coronado Bay in San Diego? The Turnberry Isle in Aventura, Florida? The Pointe Hilton South Mountain in Phoenix? Wherever you are, half the audience arrived last night from at least two time zones away. Another half - to some degree the two groups overlap - was up way late, drinking and carousing. By all means, fire up PowerPoint and dim the lights. These guys need their beauty sleep. Besides, they'll have a hard copy of your presentation to puzzle over on the plane ride home.

WHY BAN POWERPOINT? It's intellectually suspect. It's business television. It discourages questioning.

Wherever you are, note where you're not: Pebble Beach or the Greenbrier. Your boss is there, drinking better wine and eating better food. PowerPoint is very rare at CEO conferences. Like Supreme Court justices, captains of industry like to see a speaker think, not watch him read.

WORKERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE! You have nothing to lose but your frames! Thank You!

Copies of this presentation are available at the back of the auditorium.

Copyright (c) 2001 Time, Inc.

Bill Totten


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