The Resistance Continues: Combating Bad Slides And The People Who Use Them


“When I’m presenting, I think it’s important for people to hear what I’m saying AND see it on the slide.”

“I use a lot of vague bullets when I present.”

“My slides are text-heavy, but they are fine the way they are.  Audiences love my presentations.”

These are comments I’ve actually heard from people regarding slide design.  For the past few weeks, I’ve been wondering where the resistance to audience-centered slides comes from.  Who is telling people that it’s okay to design slides filled with bullets?  What research, which experts, and whose studies prove that slideuments work?  Better yet, find me one audience member who enjoys a document written on a slide and a presenter reading that slide…

There aren’t actually multiple approaches to slide design.  There isn’t a “bullet way” and a “non-bullet way.”  There’s the audience-centered way and the presenter-centered way.  The selfless way and the selfish way.  Yes… the right way and the wrong way.

Garr Reynolds explains it like this: “Slides are slides. Documents are documents. They aren’t the same thing. Attempts to merge them result in what I call the “slideument” (slide + document = slideument). Much death-by-Powerpoint suffering could be eliminated if presenters clearly separated the two in their own minds before they even started planning their talks.” (Source).

Nancy Duarte elaborates, “PowerPoint is the most pervasive visual layout tool in business, and it works beautifully for arranging words and associating them with pictures that support a topic. Unfortunately, it becomes a barrier to effective communication when used improperly. Because people prepare their brilliant work in presentation software, they feel obligated to verbally present these “documents.” The result is a meeting [or presentation] that becomes a read-along instead of time spent in productive conversation” (Source).

I’ve spent a lot of time explaining presentation design to students, teachers, colleagues, family, and friends.  Most people get it.  For example, my husband is going back to school at UWF for his graduate degree, and he had to sit through his first lecture last week.  He shook his head at the terrible template filled with bullets and said, “Alex, I wish I’d never overheard you talking about slides or seen examples of your slides.  I’ve never seen a good presentation ever since.”  My mom, a high school foreign language instructor, immediately got it and did some slide tweaking of her own in teaching her students Spanish and French.  My dad, my #1 fan and the single most devoted reader of my blog, marvels at the work of Duarte and Reynolds (and others), and we talk a lot about documents versus slides.

And then we have the resistance.

I teach at a tech-savvy art and design school, so most teachers are on board with the presentation revolution.  Most people confronted with the “right” way to design slides get it and say, “MAN!  I wish I had known about this years ago!”

A few people protest.  These are few and far between, but, BOY, do they protest.  Some people insist that their slides are great just the way they are.  Some insist that slides are meant to include a ton of words.  Some know about Duarte and Reynolds and brush off the slide revolution as fluff.  These are the people who get under my skin because I want to figure out a way how to reach them but have, time and time again, come up short.

I do notice that the protestors have a few things in common.  First, a lot of them have a lot of experience seeing presentations relying on text-heavy slides.  Slideuments are an everyday norm for them.  Second, the opposition does tend to be more business-y (come from business schools, work for big business, etc.).  Third, the members of the resistance are very aggressive.  They are firmly set in their beliefs, and they have absolutely no desire to change.  I’ve encountered downright hostile people arguing that bullets are the way to go.

While I would love to create a pitch for these naysayers, I don’t think it will be me who reaches them.  I think the world will need to change around them before they change… if they EVER change.  According to Shane Snow, the #1 business skill of the next five years will be effective storytelling.  Snow says, “Unfortunately, in the era of PowerPoint and status updates, many of us have forgotten how to tell a good story” (Source).  And it’s true.  While some people are clinging to their bullet-riddled slides, other people are focusing on the visual story, and those people are transforming the way we’re thinking about communication and presentation.

Snow continues, “Stories make presentations better. Stories make ideas stick. Stories help us persuade. Savvy leaders tell stories to inspire us, motivate us. (That’s why so many politicians tell stories in their speeches.) They realize that ‘what you say’ is often moot compared to ‘how you say it.’ (Again, for better or worse.)” (Source).  When it comes to slides, shoving content down people’s throats doesn’t actually work.  You can have 17 bullets filled with the most amazing information in the world on your slide, but no one cares because IT’S BORING!  Storytellers are the people who resonate, and learning to tell a story with your presentation is a necessary skill for any effective communicator.

Keep in mind that death-by-PowerPoint is only as old as PowerPoint.  Slides were meant to be visual, and they were visual before PowerPoint’s reign of terror began.  In fact, slides used to look a little something like this.  Check out Mad Men Season 2, Episode 11 “The Jet Set” for an example of a 1962 slideshow on nuclear weapons.  If these two presentations got it right in the 1950s and 1960s, how have we gone so far in the wrong direction today?

Angela Garber coined the term “death by PowerPoint” in 2001 (Source).  Since then, an army of presentation revolutionaries have tried to change the way we think about, design, and present information.  Most people are listening, and most people get it.  But then we have the resistance.  Do you know someone who is on the dark side, someone who peppers audiences with more bullets than one can count?  Maybe, just maybe, instead of trying to convince them to communicate more effectively, perhaps we should sit back and let them suffer the consequences…

How do you combat bad slides and the people who use them?


3 thoughts on “The Resistance Continues: Combating Bad Slides And The People Who Use Them

  1. Ugh! The million dollar question. The resistance continues.

    We’re all dealing with the same challenge. I’ve been incorporating little tests within my presentations and workshops that prove to people (in real time) how ineffective bad slides are. I’ll ask them a question about information on the previous slide (which they saw three seconds before). When they can’t answer the question correctly, they realize there’s a problem. Hard to defend bad PowerPoint when you’ve experienced it’s failings.

    My question to you (and Nancy and Garr, et al.) is… how do we turn our relatively-small movement into a full blown revolution….?!!!

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