Hi, I'm Cliff Atkinson - an author, speaker and consultant who unlocks the true value of clear communication

How to (Finally) Fix Your Company’s PowerPoint Culture

Recently a senior executive at one of the world’s largest banks contacted me to tell me about a problem he faced.wrench powerpoint

“Cliff, every day the best and brightest on my team are pitching me new projects, products and budgets,” he said. “I know my team is brilliant, but the way they’re pitching me is not.”

When I arrived at corporate headquarters to audit what the team was doing, I saw they were using – you guessed it – slide after slide of lists of text and a jumble of charts.

As I talked with the executive about the situation, he confided, “I’m frustrated because I have to work too hard to figure out what my team is trying to say with this firehose of information.”

He explained that at first he found himself interrupting presenters, asking them to get to the point. Then he sent links to articles about using graphics more effectively. Finally he drafted a set of guidelines to establish some minimum standards when they presented to him.

But, “It didn’t work,” he said. “In fact, it only got worse to the point that I saw our productivity dropping and the quality of out decision-making slipping.”

You, like my client, might face a similar situation today: you’ve come to realize that you have an entrenched “PowerPoint culture” at your organization that gums up the gears of progress instead of cutting through the clutter and delivering results faster and better.

After working with scores of corporate and legal clients over the past 15 years, I’ve discovered that PowerPoint culture can be notoriously resistant to any and all heroic efforts to fix it. Yet, I know it can change with commitment and perseverance.

So when the bank executive asked, “Can you help us?”, I was happy to reply yes, and together we took on the challenge.

Here are three central lessons we learned that may help you to fix your own PowerPoint culture at your organization:

Lesson 1: Fix the thinking and you’ll fix the slides. Buying a corporate subscription to a stock photography site will not make overloaded slides better – it will simply result in a confusing story that now has pictures. Overloaded slides are not a graphic design problem; they are a critical thinking problem. When you see an overloaded deck, you’re seeing the need for training on how to distill complexity to its essence, craft a logical argument, and tell a story. PowerPoint is simply making an existing skills deficit worse. So forget about the tools, and focus first on training your people to be better thinkers. Granted, it’s not as easy find training in critical thinking as it is in graphic design, but it’s crucial that you begin with this fundamental skill. When your people think clearly, they can’t help but communicate clearly – whether they choose to use PowerPoint or not.

Lesson 2: Fix the handout and you’ll fix the presentation. A vexing problem that organizations face is that years ago they made an unconscious choice to do away with reports and memos, and to replace them entirely with PowerPoint. In short order, information-dense pages of text were replaced with an information-light medium in the form of slides – but without the corresponding training in distilling complexity to its essence (see Lesson 1, above). The conflicted result has been decks that work poorly both as printed documents and as displayed slides. A few smart organizations have come up with a solution by using the Notes Page view as a standard for PowerPoint communications. This approach includes a clear headline at the top of the slide that summarizes the main point, a simple visual below in the slide area (which produces clear and simple slides), and additional detailed information in the text box on the bottom half of the notes page (which produces more robust printed or PDF handouts). The decision to shift to this approach needs to come top-down from headquarters as part of an organizational roll out, to establish the standard for everyone to follow. Otherwise, the entrenched culture will quickly stifle any individual efforts to try something new and improved.

Lesson 3: Redesign a deck and you present better for a day; redesign the process and you present better for a lifetime. Much of the blame for overloaded slides is placed on individual presenters, reportedly for using the tool as a “crutch.” Yet individuals are using the tool according to the norms and expectations of the culture around them. When the senior executive at the bank realized the problem was not about individual tastes in fonts and graphics, but about strategic concerns of speed and quality of decision-making, he dedicated substantial resources to solve the problem culturally. This translated into an approach that began to measure the impact of PowerPoint overload across his group, and continued to track how fixing the problem brought about tangible improvements in the form of increased speed, higher engagement, and better quality decision-making. This ensured that across the board there were reproducible processes in place that gave the entire team the training, skills and resources to be the best communicators they could be – through the rest of their careers, rather than for just one day.

At the end of our project at the bank, the executive shared, “Cliff, thank you for bringing about real change in our company culture – this has made a big difference.”

One of the practical realities of our age is that communication has shifted from a soft skill to a hard skill. The ability to find your point and get it across clearly and effectively is at the bottom line of every enterprise today.

As more organizations begin to dedicate resources to training its people to be clear thinkers and effective communicators – no matter what tools they use – we will (finally) fix our collective PowerPoint culture.

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