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For sure, PowerPoint is polarizing. Some love it, some hate it, and there is a ton of studies about its sense and nonsense. So now?

I had started arguing against PowerPoint already in 2003, then at a STOXX-50 company. The report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board had contained a full page (page 191) on “Engineering by Viewgraph”, so one could say that PowerPoint had had a contribution to the loss of the Columbia. At the same time, the counter argument was equally valid: Without PowerPoint, Space Shuttles would probably hardly have flown at all.

These days, another study was published with the result “Power-Point has a bad learning effect (‘Power-Point hat schlechten Lerneffekt‘ – linked page in German). Potentially, this is interesting insight, but it isn’t valuable. What shall we do now? Especially: What shall we do differently now? – The insight turns valuable only once a actionable recommendation is on the table.

2003, my topic was: As a presenter, I care about precise delivery of the message. To that end, I need close contact with the audience, ideally a dialogue or at least a strong feedback loop so I can realize where people are in their assimilation of the material. If a glance at the audience shows that half the people try to understand slide 17 and the other half is daydreaming… wait, in most PowerPoint-driven presentation, the speaker doesn’t look at the audience anymore but instead is trying to understand slide 17 himself.

Meanwhile, PC-based presentations are turning more and more into a problem in their own right. I’m time and again observing, especially in large corporations, that one participant of a meeting says “I’d like to show you a few slides on that now…”, and the majority of the audience starts daydreaming.

When I spoke about teamwork that first time, I had only very few slides but a load of anecdotes. We were about 30 participants in the room, and another 30 or so who had joined via telephone conference. Right at the central points, namely where the presentation went against the current habits of the participants, we had short, dense discussions. Only once I was sure that the majority had gotten the point and was willing to try my suggestions out for a couple of weeks I went on in the presentation. In the following weeks, it turned obvious which points had “arrived”, and who had decided when to follow the presentation and try something new.

Working teamwork depends on everybody having the same understanding of the topic. Ideally, everybody understands what everybody else is thinking about it, because then decisions are so much easier to take and to realize: Starting from similar models of the world, most people come to similar conclusions.

For that to work, we need presenters who take care of their audience and an audience that engages less with the “slides” and more with the presenter. PowerPoint & Co. as tools direct attention away from the contact between the presenter and the audience, OK, but it is primarily the people who have accepted the distraction. What shall we do differently now? – Focus on “shared understanding” as the goal, and stay attentive based on this motivation.


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