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Toward a More Collaborative PowerPoint: Q&A with Michael Schrage

By Cliff Atkinson

boring presentationMichael Schrage writes and consults about the design and diffusion of digital innovation and their effects on business relationships. One innovation called PowerPoint has had a big effect on business, and according to Michael, a core problem with it is the fact that it is a presentation tool in the first place, instead of a collaboration tool. Michael is a contributing editor to WIRED, Marketing Computer and ID magazines, and has written for Harvard Business Review, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Institutional Investor, Science, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. Michael is an MIT Media Lab Fellow and author of No More Teams and Serious Play.

Cliff Atkinson: Michael, is PowerPoint having a big impact on communications, or is it simply reflecting trends that have been going on all along?

Michael Schrage: The most vicious criticisms of PowerPoint are absolutely true. But the people who believe that PowerPoint has done a fabulous job of clarifying are also right. Most adults know within 90 seconds whether a PowerPoint sucks or is useful. When it works, it’s fabulous and it reinforces the talk. In the hands of people who know how to use it, it reinforces their credibility. In the hands of people who take the path of least resistance, it undermines it. I’ve seen literally the abstract of three Ph.D. theses on a single slide – what’s the point of that? I’m not the only person in the room wondering that. The fact that incompetence in PowerPoint is so easy to identify, really makes it so much easier for the audience to assess the intelligence of the speaker.

CA: What is an effective PowerPoint design approach?

MS: Once you’re talking about designing the “presentation,” you’re defining the presentation to the exclusion of meaningful interaction. Instead, you should ask how much time you spend focused on how the audience is going to interact with you.

CA: Why do we use PowerPoint to “present” instead of “interact”?

MS: I think the technology biases that, and the way most meetings are run reinforces it. I hate to say it, but it’s a path of least resistance. The question is not “What am I trying to say?”, but “What kind of reaction do I want from the audience?” It’s not about optimizing the presentation; it’s about optimizing interaction. There is a difference between somebody teaching and somebody learning. The idea that I appear to be a great teacher, but my class doesn’t learn, means I’m really not a great teacher.

CA: So media should and could facilitate interaction?

MS: Clearly, interaction does matter. It depends on a variety of issues: the nature of the presentation, the size of the group, message to be delivered. It does not appear that our technical infrastructure – especially if we’re building it around things like PowerPoint – is robust enough, flexible enough, or capable enough to embrace in any meaningful way facilitating interaction, as opposed to facilitating presentation. That’s a bad thing. That should change.

CA: Do the ways people use PowerPoint stem from a general fear of public speaking?

MS: Often times what you are witnessing in a public speaker is a performance. There’s nothing wrong with performance art. But please, let’s not delude ourselves into believing that good performance art translates into increased business or interpersonal productivity. When we’re talking about how we want to communicate with an audience, we are kidding ourselves if we do not think as much about the nature of interaction as we do about the nature of presentation. And the idea that we shouldn’t try to get a sense of who the audience is, and the kind of impact we think matters to them, is delusional. Or even worse, unprofessional.

CA: Can journalistic writing skills help people prioritize information in PowerPoint?

MS: The classic question I ask myself as a journalist is, “Who do I want to pick up the phone and call whom after reading this piece?” If I have a decent answer to that, after I’ve covered the basics, that’s a fabulous way of prioritizing. A good journalist will get a sense of “What’s the story? What’s important in the story? Where’s the conflict driving the story? And where’s the consensus?”, and you move within those parameters. You have a finite amount of time and a finite amount of space – in journalism, it’s due today. The constraints force you to prioritize. The issue is not banning PowerPoint – it’s about putting constraints on it. For example, limit a PowerPoint to no more than 10 slides, no more than 20 words, and 2 of those slides have to have pictures or charts. Just as in the strict rhyming structure of sonnets or haiku, art is defined by constraints. A problem with PowerPoint is that you can just create another slide. In the first and final analysis, do we use technologies to engage our audience, or to better articulate what we want to say? There are a lot of arrogant people who believe that better articulating what we want to say is synonymous with engaging the audience. That’s not acceptable.

CA: It sounds like it boils down to self-centeredness.

MS: Does PowerPoint enable narcissism? Yes. That’s why PowerPoint is very often not about building community consensus, but about imposing an individual’s view.

CA: It’s interesting that when people talk about “interactive” technologies like email, chat and websites, they never mention PowerPoint, even though it is the only one of those technologies that actually brings people into the physical presence of one another to “interact”. Why is PowerPoint not part of the “interactive” conversation?

MS: I’ve done facilitated meetings where people take notes and project them on a screen, or take spreadsheets and project them. You do have meetings that take advantage of projection capabilities, and you work around the spreadsheet, or you work around the document. You actually do collaborative design that way. But there’s no place to do that in PowerPoint. PowerPoint has never been treated as an interactive medium. Microsoft should build voting capability into PowerPoint. The voting technologies make a huge difference for two reasons: the audience pays attention because they get to participate, and you get a sense of what the audience considers its priorities are. There are times when I intentionally try to show the audience how divided it is – I’m trying to use wedge issues with the audience to create a fight, to create tension. There are other times I try to promote consensus. Those are useful techniques for any presenter and facilitator.

CA: Having that sort of instant audience feedback sounds like it would break the ice and make everyone more comfortable.

MS: You at least begin with where they are. Beginning where you are is totally obnoxious and arrogant. I think it’s a mistake.

CA: How do you approach your own PowerPoint?

MS: I look at each slide as a market test – I’m always looking to see how the audience reacts to a slide. If they’re not smiling, or there’s not a perceptible change in the body language, then there’s something wrong. You want iteration and feedback. PowerPoint should not be a finished presentation, but an invitation to respond and interact.

Cliff Atkinson is an acclaimed writer, popular keynote speaker, and a consultant to leading attorneys and Fortune 500 companies. He designed the presentations that helped persuade a jury to award a $253 million verdict to the plaintiff in the nation’s first Vioxx trial in 2005, which Fortune magazine called “frighteningly powerful.” Cliff’s book Beyond Bullet Points (Microsoft Press, 2005) is an Amazon.com bestseller that expands on a communications approach he has taught at many of the country’s top corporations, advertising agencies, law firms, government agencies and business schools.