Building Good PowerPoint – Part 1

June 3, 2010

I’m going to go off on a clear communication and PowerPoint harangue for at least the next few posts. Hopefully it will be interesting. At a minimum it will make me feel better.

A big part of my day job is spent teaching, helping construct, reviewing and delivering presentations to either classes or clients. I have helped build or witnessed hundreds of presentations over the last decade, so I see a lot of PowerPoint and have developed a strong opinion about what works and doesn’t work.

I just taught an executive education session on Critical Thinking & Communication that I’ve been offering for several years now. As attendance has steadily grown, I continue to be surprised at how much help people want with the basics of clear communication. I started with the class being largely about problem formulation and research design, as people struggle with that as well. But I’ll likely be breaking out the presentation component as its own class in the future because of the demand for help building well structured communication.

It re-enforced for me how few of us are ever really exposed to serious critical thinking training and feedback. I was fortunate to get beaten down for poor thinking from an early age in a good school system and had difficult teachers who actually wanted evidence. My business communication perspective emerged from this background. “So what?” and “Prove it!” are base concepts I took away. So how can we think about this in getting better at management/business communications?

I plan to post on three sub-themes over the next few weeks:

1)     Commenting on the “PowerPoint is lame/sucks talk”. My biggest argument here is (again) “so what?”. It’s the de-facto presentation format, so use it well rather than just railing against it.

2)     Building a useful and compelling story. The focus will be on structuring the communication vehicle, NOT on how to present.

3)     Building a good PowerPoint slide. Too much bad PowerPoint has been perpetuated on the world already.

Part 1: PowerPoint isn’t the biggest problem…

…it’s how simplistically people use it. It’s the thinking more than the tool.

A recent New York Times article “We Have Met the Enemy and He is PowerPoint” offered up as an example of this tension as currently experienced in the US military.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was shown a PowerPoint slide in Kabul last summer that was meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy, but looked more like a bowl of spaghetti.

Here’s a graphic of that slide.

“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General McChrystal dryly remarked, one of his advisers recalled, as the room erupted in laughter.

My thought: That’s exactly right. It’s not a terrible slide if the takeaway is “this is immensely complex.” It is terrible if the author intended to actually go through it as a template for discussing causality in the conflict.

Later in the article, another officer, Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster likened PowerPoint to an internal threat.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

In General McMaster’s view, PowerPoint’s worst offense is not a chart like the spaghetti graphic, which was first uncovered by NBC’s Richard Engel, but rigid lists of bullet points (in, say, a presentation on a conflict’s causes) that take no account of interconnected political, economic and ethnic forces. “If you divorce war from all of that, it becomes a targeting exercise,” General McMaster said.

I agree. But would a 1 page word document be better? Maybe – I am an advocate of prose forcing you to actually articulate the thought. But crummy logic and weak analysis is what it is.

In this case, military officers are presenting in a format that is approved by management and allowing sloppy thinking to be passed along. I am confident that the presenters didn’t think “I’m going to show my bosses (the generals) something that represents my views in a format that has worked for me in the past” rather than “let’s show the boss junk and see what he says!”.

If I’m right, this means the material McChrystal and McMaster tear apart represents what their chain of command deemed appropriate. They didn’t come to that conclusion on their own. It’s been inculcated. That makes them just like thousands of other organizations.

So what’s a soul to do? We have to present our content and most of us reside in organizations that assume PowerPoint usage.

It’s not very practical to say “PowerPoint sucks, so don’t use it.” Many of us live in a PowerPoint world. As an executive at 3M and a large consulting firm, I didn’t have the luxury of saying “I think PPT is inelegant, so here’s my clever rendering of data in a form you are unaccustomed to. Please be impressed by my clear thinking and originality as I ask you for phase gate approval in a format completely different from the other 10 proposals you saw today.”

Edward Tufte is a thought leader in information design that I respect highly. I would echo his sentiment from this old article in Wired magazine:

“PowerPoint is a competent slide manager and projector. But rather than supplementing a presentation, it has become a substitute for it. Such misuse ignores the most important rule of speaking: Respect your audience.”

He decimates PowerPoint in a pamphlet he published several years ago (The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint). I agree with his assessment of how he sees it applied and how its templates drive you to appearing shallower than you might like. (As an example, I mock my students who use “SmartArt” templates or stupid clip art as substitutes for actual thinking.The tool’s name is an oxymoron.)

Never-the-less, I think we are stuck with PowerPoint. So how do we make an admittedly challenged tool as useful as possible? We’ll explore that in several coming posts. The keys are actually having a point, a story to communicate it and then building specific slides that represent your thinking.

In parting, I saw this hilarious video of Don McMillan offering funny, but sound, advice on using PowerPoint on David Airey’s thoughtful blog on design and branding.

It’s important to laugh or you’d cry. Let me know your thoughts…

Pre-selling Ideas

March 28, 2010

A big part of any professional’s success is the ability to get buy-in for their ideas. The ideas could be big investments, changes to internal process that require significant change, making a major hire…anything really. In situations where a group will weigh in on a decision it is particularly important to “pre-sell” your idea.

What do I mean by “pre-sell”? Simply allowing other stakeholders or decision-makers sufficient prior input so that you can factor it into your ultimate presentation and delivery.

Reasons for doing it include:

Understanding. You want to be clear on the politics and decision making process. Who in the room gets along with whom? What are everyone’s pet projects or interests? Etc.

Testing. Running your material by people in advance allows you to understand what specific elements of your story and analysis are or are not working. You can iterate your work to better tune it to your audience’s interests and biases. An example can be as simple as using the right language or concept. The same idea may be sold on “profit growth” or “revenue growth”. Which is a better tack given the culture? In a past life, I went through having to describe everything as a Six Sigma initiative. So be it.

Quality Assurance. In “testing” I mean more pre-flighting the content. QA means making sure your math and assumptions are correct. If a key number or assumption is wrong in a public/decision making forum, your idea will die a painful and public death. This is particularly important on very technical or detail oriented topics.

Efficiency. Having more intimate 1:1 conversations allows for fuller explanation of ideas relative to a particular stakeholder’s concerns. For example, the CFO may have much more detailed financial concerns than others. If you can walk her through all your spreadsheets in advance and she knows they are in the appendix, you have her on board and don’t need to dwell on the details in a large group.

Anticipating. You want to make sure you understand who doesn’t agree with you. This allows you to plan the presentation accordingly and either directly address concerns through adapting your material or planning your rebuttal. This is particularly important in meetings where you need a decision and the group meets infrequently. Examples include quarterly gate review teams. If you miss a window, you can’t revisit for 3 months. Not good.

Inclusiveness. If an idea is “yours” it may or may not sell based on your reputation. If many or most of the people in the room listening have their fingerprints on it and can see their interests being met, it will be much more consensus driven process. The best examples are when someone challenges a number in you presentation and someone else can explain and defend the value.

Avoiding. Often politics are involved. You never want a big debate or fight to break out when your idea is up for discussion (unless you have consciously set it up that way). If several stakeholders actively disagree, get that out before the meeting and figure out how to best satisfy all parties if you can.

So some simple rules for pre-selling:

  • Show your work in advance
  • Listen
  • Give people opportunities to provide meaningful input
  • Take advice
  • Offer credit where credit is due
  • Understand stakeholder’s perspectives
  • Get work done early enough to be able to share
  • Construct content that it is clear and professional

Some obvious “don’ts”:

  • Ambush people
  • Surprise people
  • Avoid feedback
  • Go it alone

If your idea doesn’t fly, you don’t want it to be for lack of planning or effort.

Putting a Stake in the Ground

March 22, 2010

Sometimes you just have to take a position to move things forward. I see many teams and organizations get paralyzed by indecision, conscious stalling and/or lack of clarity.

I am certainly the king of “it depends” and “context matters” and am a serial deferrer to buy time for more data to come in. I also would stipulate that sometimes, waiting is the most effective strategy. But sometimes, you have to force the issue.

Let’s first discuss how we can force the issue and then get into when and why.

Universal Answer- How

In almost all of these cases, the “answer” is proposing a straw model(s) for people to debate. The point is to put something reasonable in print for people to respond to. In can be high-level and conceptual, or very detailed and well thought out. Whatever works for the context you are in. The point is to commit it to a form that people can understand and meaningfully debate.

You are doing several things in this process.

1 – Summarizing what you believe to be “the current understanding”. This requires synthesis and thought on your part.

2 – Framing clear discussion points for stakeholders. Whether in the form of a proposal, documented assumptions, alternate scenarios etc., you are allowing others to get the “digested” thinking. This advances discussion more quickly.

3 – Controlling the agenda. Remember that he/she who commits thoughts to print first frames the discussion.

4 – Increasing communication efficiency – The discussion will much more quickly move to clarification and debate when people understand what you are saying. No need to waste time on multiple rounds of clarification if you are clear.

You can position the straw model as your thinking, or distance yourself from it as appropriate. (You still need to e politically astute). Either way, you are driving discussion and action.

The key is often to embed a failsafe trigger that will “go off” if someone doesn’t respond. From a negotiations standpoint the idea is to create a sense of urgency. So document your idea/position and publish it. Could be an email to group, a power point proposal or clear position on white board in a meeting.

Now let’s explore a few times when forcing the issue makes sense. What follows is an unscientific list of situations that I see a need for “stakes in the ground”.

When to apply 

You are on a timeline

In this situation, you often have no other choice. Whether the issue is major or minor, there isn’t time to waste. This is particularly true for consultants. We are always “on the clock”, with time equaling either billable hours or engagement profitability. For better or for worse, clients also know you will be gone by a certain date. Often the issue is as much attention from relevant stakeholders as it is resistance. You are competing for their attention and mental bandwidth.

Example – A team of mine recently did a nice job of managing a client situation by writing a very detailed list of assumptions and actions they were going to take in conducting quantitative analysis of a large and complicated data set based on those assumptions with a due date. They also pointed out the cost if their assumptions were wrong and a timeline for responding.

The result was important (and timely) clarifications, as well as enhanced team credibility due to the detail and rigor of their efforts. Any less effort and we all would have been spinning our wheels for weeks more. They had been struggling to get clarity and finally realized that pe

You want to expose potential disconnects/create a shared understanding

What does this even mean? Here, you think that everyone is not on the same page and the point is to take a position to reveal others’ understanding of the issue. This can be particularly important in cross-functional or cross-organizational discussions.

 One example is that people may not mean the same thing even when they are using the same terms. “Terms of Art” is a phrase used to describe the actual definition of a technical or functionally specific term. For example, organizations often differ from classical functional boundaries. What does “supply chain” mean at your firm? What’s in “operations”? It’s crucial that you reach common operational definitions for these terms to ensure common understanding.

Other examples include:

  • Surfacing assumptions that are so deep, no one even thought to discuss them.
  • Highlighting areas believed to be commonly agreed, but more detail or specificity reveals that the devil is in the details and maybe there wasn’t as much agreement as thought.

You need to make people publicly take a position

This one is more political. Often people are trying to avoid taking a position on politically difficult topics. If you can maneuver them into a position where they have to be specific in their objections, then you can document their issues and potentially push them into a corner if you can address all their objections. You then expose their motivations if they continue to resist/object when their concerns have been addressed.

As always, I struggle with being MECE, but these are the big ones I can think of off the top of my head. Let me know if you can think of others.

Performing When the Lights Come On

May 3, 2009

This week we began our cycle of final client presentations and I was reminded of the importance of performing well in the meeting. This is another “obvious point from Phil”, but let me elaborate.

You can have the most dynamic, data driven and compelling story in the world. But if you don’t sell it and respond credibly to questioning in the meeting then you’re dead. Don’t forget that your audience is not just buying into your content. They are deciding whether they buy you.

So what can we do to improve our likelihood of success? Let’s break it down into components:

The Presentation

I won’t spend too much time here as I think this is an entire multi-post series. However, a few important points are worth making.

1)     Make sure it looks professional – If you couldn’t take the time to make it appear decent, why should I take time to listen? 

2)     Be sure to have run it by stakeholders for vetting and input (as appropriate) – You don’t want to be surfacing “new” or controversial information in most cases. You want people to be saying “I agree” and “that will work” etc. Particularly if you are looking for a decision in the meeting you need all “Ts” crossed and “I’s” dotted. Any doubts will send you to “take another look at that and we’ll re-consider this…” hell.

3)     Have organized it logically to tell the story you want to convey based on your audience – Make sure the story flows and builds sensibly. Your audience won’t all be at the same place, so be careful to ensure you’ve given enough context or background. If you are building to one conclusion you organize differently than if you have a series of decisions etc. Never jam up your material with lots of junk slides. Feel free to use your appendix liberally. A general rule of thumb on slides is that if you don’t have 2-3 minutes of discussion per slide (on average) then you should push it to the back.  I’ll write more on this in the future.

4)     Don’t fall in love with your research/data. There is a phenomenon called “the curse of knowledge”. It essentially states when you know something too well you have a hard time summarizing it simply for novices. Never forget you have spent hours, weeks or months thinking about some of your material. Your audience has 30-60 minutes. Bring it up to an understandable level of summary. Also exclude unnecessary charts or data that are “cool” but not relevant to your central story. The appendix can be huge and is great for this content. You certainly want people to understand how much work has been done, but don’t want to distract.

The Delivery

As I mention above, if you deliver your content poorly it will die. You may not get eaten up, more likely you will just be ignored. Your ability to “stand and deliver” will have a big influence on your effectiveness.

1)     Be confident. Lack of confidence is a killer. It makes everyone in the room less sure of what you are telling them and raises unnecessary doubts. If you are not in fact confident, figure out how to seem so. As they say, “fake it ‘til you make it”.  The more you do it, the more comfortable you are.

2)     Understand your goals and be disciplined in what you do/don’t say. You can’t be trying to make 26 points. Pick your 2-3 major storyline elements and hammer them. You should not get to the end and have people say “that was great” and not know what they need to do.

3)     Pace your content appropriately for the level of thought and discussion required. If you have 63 slides and need several contentious decisions made then 60 minutes isn’t enough. Sometimes you are asked to recommend, sometimes to facilitate discussion. These are very different goals and require different structure of content and delivery of material. Plan accordingly.

4)     Be prepared for challenges. It’s important to have thought through who will be in the room (stakeholders) and what each person’s likely interests and objections are. Ideally you’re on top of this enough to have adjusted your slides to address this, but either way you need to be able to respond in real time.

5)     Plan potential responses. For the top likely challenges you can build well formulated responses, even including specific appendix slides. It’s very compelling when you can specifically address these types of challenges. First, you demonstrate that you thought of the issue. Second, you carried the thought through to analysis and built content around it. Third, it potentially allows you to show respect to opposing points of view. The act of building content can convey open-mindedness.

My experience is that if you are well prepared for key lines of questioning then you will receive fewer challenges as the presentation progresses. Basically, they’ve bought that you know your stuff and allow you to proceed. If you can’t address the first several challenges…ouch. It’s going to be a long day.

6)     Understand the room & setting you are in. You need to be prepared for all the little details of staging. Are we around a table, are there 5 or 50 people etc.? There isn’t a universal rule for “what’s best” . But you do need to understand the environment you’ll be in to effectively plan your delivery.

7)     Be respectful in responding. If you lose your temper or are casually dismissive of any audience member you severely limit your effectiveness.

8)     Practice. If the first time you’re going through your material is in the moment then you won’t have anticipated many of the pitfalls inherent in your content. Several dry runs turn up both flaws in logic, as well as slide/content mistakes.

9)     Manage your nerves/Have fun! I personally enjoy the “joust” of presenting and persuading, but I still get nervous. Practice helps this. In addition, I’d encourage you to take the attitude that this is your opportunity to show all your work.

There are many other subtle tips to offer, but if you actually work at the advice above you’ll have less pain and more success. A disproportionate amount of career success comes from how well you deliver in these key situations. You want to be building a positive reputation.

Let me know if you have questions or would like me to dig into any of these areas more.

Is the juice worth the squeeze?

April 6, 2009

I’ve always been coached and offered the advice to people to be careful when they take certain actions. Make sure it’s worth it. I recently got a great summary of it when reconnecting with a former boss. He said where he grew up this is called “is the juice worth the squeeze?”


In difficult situations, there’s always a temptation to respond impulsively or do what feels good. Whether it’s an email, a “witty” response in a meeting or a significant political position…think it through and make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.


A common misperception I see people make all too often is that there are no, or limited, consequences to just saying what we think. This is soooo wrong. There’s a great scene in the godfather where Sonny blurts out a disrespectful and revealing comment to Sollozzo. Don Corleone’s dismissal of Sonny is “Santino, never let anyone outside the family know what you are thinking.” In this case it ends for Sonny at a toll booth in a hail of bullets. I’ll summarize in saying the juice was definitely not worth the squeeze.


Obviously, most of our lives are not as dramatic. Nevertheless there are many opportunities to make a poor choice along the way. I’d encourage you to think through in certain situations WHY you would be responding or acting the way you do. My point here is to separate ethics from ego. A few that come to mind are:


1)    Making yourself feel better. This is entirely ego and almost always a bad idea. You’ll feel better for seconds…until you feel worse. The downside is generally worse than the few seconds of cleverness you get to enjoy. Not much upside here. The classic example here is emailing angry. Bad choice.


2)    Speaking truth to power regarding a likely poor decision. This is more complicated. Ego and ethics can get co-mingled and both sides can believe they are doing the right thing. My counsel is to think carefully. You are probably more able to be somewhat assertive as you are (hopefully) data driven in your concerns, have a fact base to argue from and are smart enough to frame disagreement impersonally. Just think carefully before speaking.


3)    Speaking truth to power regarding an ethical concern. This is where things get stickier. You need to think hard before responding and consider whether you completely understand the situation and the implications of acting. Making a major ethical stand can be heroic…or foolish.


First, assess the situation. MAKE SURE you have your facts straight and that you are on firm ground ethically. Lots of things can be gray. Being black and white in a gray world can be problematic. Second, be sure you are willing to leave or be marginalized if things go badly. When you fall on your sword, you are impaled. You may not survive so be sure you understand this.  Third, make sure you have assessed the bigger picture. Could you have a bigger impact by swallowing hard, staying and keeping other things on track?


4)    Acting in your own vs. others’ self interest. In the end everyone will know if you take care of yourself over others. Your reputation will suffer. Consider the implications before acting.


So think through how to respond in difficult spots. I’ll write my next post on how to handle some of these situations wisely to create scenarios where you can do what you think is right without blowing yourself up.


There isn’t a right or wrong answer in these areas. It’s up to you to do what’s right for you. Just think it through and make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.

Edward Tufte and the Visual Display of Information

February 19, 2009

For those of you interested in deeper exploration of how to more effectively display ideas, particularly relating to data, I highly recommend the work of Edward Tufte. Tufte is an award winning author and emeritus professor at Yale where he taught courses on data analysis and display. His books and teaching are challenging and force you to move beyond powerpoint and overly simplified forms of information display.

I often teach principles of simplicity in message and communication. Tufte is very effective at pointing out and teaching how to make “simple” powerful without being “simplistic”. There are very data rich and complex ways to show information that are also intuitive and easy to understand. His writings are rich with examples and are beautifully built. The books themselves are works of art.

His site has multiple commentary threads that are worth reading. In addition, I recommend checking out his essay on the tyranny of powerpoint.

Structure is Important (Duh!)

February 14, 2009

One of my students just observed (paraphrased) that “sometimes you just need to remember the basics”. The comment came after a class in which we had speakers from McKinsey & Co. present and discuss their approach to structured problem solving.


I have this session annually and it mirrors much of the course content we present in the enterprise, but I still always take something new away from the talk. The simplicity of the basic approach is valuable, but also easy to ignore because it seems so obvious. From a teaching perspective I always need to remember that just because we talked about it awhile ago, doesn’t mean people remember it if you haven’t been re-enforcing a concept or tool.


The high level outline of the method is to 1) define the problem, 2) structure the problem, 3) prioritize issues, 4) conduct analysis, 5) synthesize findings and 6) develop recommendations. Every firm has their version of these steps. I teach similar steps in my class. It’s not rocket science.


Despite this I remain amazed at the extent to which we don’t take all the steps we know we should, finding rationalizations to avoid them “we don’t have time”, “we already know the question” etc.


So how do we avoid the pitfalls of lazy, sloppy or incoherent thinking? Here are a few steps that should help.


First principle: Bring your client & team along for the ride. They have to have a tangible role in each of these steps if you want the highest probability of a useful outcome.


1.      Write the problem or question down. This seems so obvious, but how often do you really commit it to print and get agreement from everyone on what it is.

2.      Determine who the client or audience is and what their interests are.

3.      Work out a clear framework for solving problem or answering the question. I have an earlier post on issue trees you can reference.

4.      Build a plan. Everyone needs to know what they’re working on. Not everything is equally important, so be prioritizing or de-prioritizing as you go based on your judgment.

5.      Then of course, you have to actually do the research.

6.      Develop recommendations that can actually be accepted and used by your client. There are some subtleties in this step.

·        A recommendation your client hasn’t had a part in building reduce the likelihood of success. ”Success” here is defined as they actually do something. Merely liking your work doesn’t meet this standard. The client has to “own” it enough to implement it.

·        Be practical about what is achievable. Don’t tell them about “best practices” they need to implement that they realistically can’t.

·        Don’t just tell them “what”, tell the “how”. A plan with nice ideas, but no implementation insight is mostly useless.


Each can be handled at varying degrees of detail. A six month process improvement project targeting $7 million in savings requires more thought and planning than a one week quick assessment you might summarize the thinking for on a napkin. Use your judgment.


Following good process through the project greatly increases the probability of success. It also reduces stress and increases client satisfaction because they can see where you are.