Welles: Powering up your points

PowerPoint has forever changed how people give presentations — for good or ill

Cliff Atkinson’s company, Sociable Media

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Microsoft’s PowerPoint has transformed the way we hold meetings, make budget requests and justify projects. Laptop PCs with the software have replaced cumbersome overhead projectors and slide shows. But PowerPoint has also become synonymous with long, tedious presentations punctuated with bullet points.

Cliff Atkinson, president of Los Angeles-based Sociable Media, thinks government agencies and companies should go “Beyond Bullet Points” — the title of his book — and improve how they communicate through PowerPoint presentations.

These days, PowerPoint is used for everything from grocery shopping lists to presentations at large conferences. Atkinson, who has led a workshop at the Social Security Administration, said PowerPoint is ingrained in the culture of business and government, especially the military.

PowerPoint fans will tell you it’s an easy and convenient way to convey your main points. Adding animation and music to PowerPoint presentations can heighten interest.

But detractors argue that PowerPoint presentations are often mind-numbing, especially when people deliver them in a monotone voice and close off discussion.

PowerPoint use might have been partly to blame for NASA’s poor analysis of the risk from tile damage to the space shuttle Columbia. Yale professor emeritus Edward Tufte, a PowerPoint critic, discovered that a PowerPoint slide presentation made to NASA senior managers in January 2003, while the damaged shuttle was still in orbit, buried important information when it should have highlighted that information for technical analysis.

Atkinson’s main criticism of PowerPoint is that people read bullet points to one another at the expense of critical thinking.

“Bullets are good for lists but not good at telling a story or making sense out of complexity,” he said. “Lists don’t help us in critical thinking.”

Some research shows that many uses of PowerPoint reduce rather than enhance understanding, Atkinson said.

“We need to ask how we are using the tool to educate, inform and persuade,” he said. “We need to look at how to make a persuasive case and find a way to make it engaging to the audience.”

Atkinson provides a story template in his book and via a free download on his Web site. Anyone can use the template to set up a story, write a script and add words and pictures. “It helps to orient information around your audience and structure ideas to help them understand your ideas better with a beginning, middle and end,” he said.

Atkinson’s advice to presenters who use PowerPoint is to use words and pictures to communicate and to follow these steps:

  • Write your story first before designing your presentation.

  • Simplify by distilling information, but don’t dumb it down.

  • Identify the three key things your audience needs to know and remember.

  • Use high-impact graphics to unlock the emotional power of ideas. Check the Internet for free stock photos.

  • Use charts and graphs to back up points.

Welles is a retired federal employee who has worked in the public and private sectors. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at judywelles@fcw.com.
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