Death to PowerPoint

The FT carried an interesting article the other day, about how the French IT services firm Atos has banned internal email and is turning its sights on PowerPoint next.

It took me back to my time at Goodby Silverstein and Partners, in San Francisco, over a decade ago.  I don’t know about now, but back then PowerPoint was pretty much banned at the agency.  It wasn’t even on the system, because the partners thought it got in the way of good work.  Instead, everybody did presentations on polyboard.

Even in 2000, this felt a bit old-fashioned.  In fact, it was especially anachronistic as it was the height of the first dotcom boom and we were the foremost agency in Silicon Valley.  But given that Goodbys had just been named US Agency of the Decade, nobody was in the mood to question this little quirk.

What was interesting about this policy, was the chain of knock-on-effects it created.  By using polyboard, you were limited to a handful of “charts”: most presentations involved flights to other parts of the US, so you were constrained by what could be fitted into an artbag. This, in turn, forced you to distil your argument.  As did the fact that when you reached your destination, you were likely to be presenting to some no-nonsense mid-Westerners, who wouldn’t take kindly to a lot of high-falutin’ Californian philosophisin’.  In my case, there was a further incentive to keep it short, in that nobody could understand my Scottish accent…

But despite all these constraints – or rather, because of them – I found this a great way to create presentations.  It forced you to focus on the important stuff: to obsess about the work and not the deck.  It taught you to get the flow just right.  And it encouraged you to talk naturally with clients, rather than present at them.

So when people ask (as they occasionally do) for advice in putting a PowerPoint presentation together, I always say “don’t.”  Instead, imagine you’re on the 8am flight to Akron, Ohio, to meet someone with the attention span of a gnat, who thinks you sound like Groundskeeper Willie from the Simpsons.  After hearing about ATOS, I might swap the plane for the TGV but the power of the point (if not the PowerPoint) remains the same.

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