By Clay Chandler

Clay is an author, editor and fellow at Hult International Business School where he follows technology, economics and global business. He is a former Asia editor at McKinsey & Company, and has held senior editorial roles at Fortune, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Follow him on Twitter @claychandler

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Why the ubiquitous slide presentation software sucks—and what you can do to fix it.

New graduates know the transition from campus to corporate life will bring its share of hardship. They expect to work long hours for little pay, travel too much, sacrifice their social lives, and endure overbearing bosses and annoying colleagues.

But many aspiring executives discover their new job comes with an excruciating torment for which no one prepared them: endless, soul-destroying hours spent preparing presentations in PowerPoint.

Client meeting? Project review? Company picnic? Yep, there’s a deck for that—and if you’re a new hire, odds are you’re the unlucky schlub who’s going to have to build it. There may be only one thing worse than having to crank out another mind-numbing PowerPoint presentation: having to sit through one cranked out by somebody else.

How did it come to this? The first version of PowerPoint, developed by a company called Forethought, went on sale in 1987. It was designed for the Mac, in those days still a tiny niche market. Then in 1990, Microsoft acquired Forethought and began bundling a PC-compatible version of PowerPoint with Microsoft Office. The program spread like kudzu. (For more on the history of PowerPoint, see Priyanka Sen’s article here.)

Today PowerPoint has insinuated itself into every corner of business life. It has been embraced with greatest fervor by those in consulting, finance, and sales. But the program is widely used in science and engineering, and creative professions such as architecture and design as well. Using PowerPoint, or its Mac equivalent, Keynote, is de rigueur for tech startups pitching investors. One of the terrible realities of the modern business world is that there is no escape from “Death by PowerPoint.”

One of the terrible realities of the modern business world is that there is no escape from “Death by PowerPoint.”

PowerPoint thrives despite a large and growing chorus of detractors. In 2001, The New Yorker’s Ian Parker was among the first to suggest that there might be something insidious about PowerPoint. The program, he lamented, “has a private, interior influence. It edits ideas. It is, almost surreptitiously, a business manual as well as a business suit, with an opinion—an oddly pedantic, prescriptive opinion—about the way we should think. It helps you make a case, but it also makes its own case: about how to organize information, how much information to organize, how to look at the world.”

Edward Tufte, Yale professor of political science, computer science, and statistics, mounted a more forceful critique in 2003, attacking the program in a 28-page screed entitled The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. The problem with slide presentation software like PowerPoint, Tufte complained, is that it kills interaction between presenter and the audience and rewards showmanship over intellectual rigor. Slideware, said Tufte, encourages presenters to “replace serious analysis with chart-junk, overproduced layouts, cheerleader logotypes and branding, and corny clip-art.”

In a subsequent Wired magazine article, Tufte compared PowerPoint to a popular drug that “promised to make us beautiful” but instead “induced stupidity, turned everyone into bores, wasted time, and degraded the quality and credibility of communication.”

NASA’s investigation into the causes of the 2003 explosion of the Columbia space shuttle lent weight to Tufte’s critique. In its summary of the causes of the crash, the NASA Accident Investigation Board faulted the agency for becoming too reliant on presenting complex information via PowerPoint instead of traditional ink-and-paper reports. Slides crammed with nested bullet points and confusing diagrams, investigators concluded, had prevented engineers from assessing the risk of wing damage.

Critics have blamed PowerPoint for poor decision-making in the US military. Richard Russell, a special advisor to US Central Command, believes PowerPoint slides prepared by the Central Intelligence Agency created the confusion that led to the mistaken bombing of the Chinese embassy of Belgrade in 1999; he has called for banning the use of the program at the National Defense University. A widely debated article by New York Times Pentagon correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller heaped scorn on a particularly obtuse PowerPoint slide portraying US strategy in Afghanistan. The article, published in 2010, quoted General Stanley McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, observing derisively “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.” PowerPoint, said Bumiller, had consumed so much time and effort among US military planning staff that it had become “a running joke in the Pentagon and in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

In a recently published memoir, former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates called PowerPoint “the bane of my existence.” As CIA director, Gates banned slide presentations. But as Defense Secretary, he was unable to enforce a similar edict.

PowerPoint’s critics include some of America’s best-known CEOs. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos forbids the use of PowerPoint at meetings with his senior team. Instead, he requires executives to present new ideas in a four-page memo, which the team sits and reads together before discussing. In a 2004 memo announcing the ban, Bezos explained, “The reason writing a 4-page memo is harder than writing a 20-page PowerPoint is that narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related.”

LinkedIn CEO Reid Hoffman has outlawed PowerPoint, as has the committee of physicists working on the Large Hadron Collider.

PowerPoint’s defenders (incredibly, there are quite a few), say criticisms of the program are misguided.

Jean-Luc Dumont, a communications specialist with a PhD in physics from Stanford, dismisses Tufte’s tract as “dogmatic” and “judgmental.” Oral presentations, he argues, aren’t meant to do the same things as a written report, and should be understood as a complement to, not substitute for detailed written analysis or charts and graphs.

Bad PowerPoint presentations are the fault of the presenter, not the software, says communications guru Don Norman. “Don’t blame the problem on the tool.”

“Don’t blame the problem on the tool.”

Love it or loathe it, PowerPoint is here to stay. So instead of complaining, you might as well focus on the things you can do to make your presentations suck a little less. There is, by now, a vast trove of expert wisdom — books, websites, online courses, and seminars — on how to create an effective PowerPoint presentation. For what it’s worth, here is my own (purely subjective and not particularly original) list of top five PowerPoint pointers:

1) Identify a “call to action.” It’s almost impossible to create a compelling PowerPoint deck if you lack a clear objective. The problem with many presentations is that they seek only to present, not to motivate or persuade. In the parlance of communications gurus, this failing is sometimes described as focusing on the “what” instead of the “so what.” Sometimes just laying out the data is all that’s required. But great decks, like great speeches, are designed to accomplish a particular mission — to get listeners to shift their mindset from Point A to Point B.

2) Write out your presentation in essay form before composing it in PowerPoint. The problem with PowerPoint — or, for that matter, any slideshare program — is that it bullies users into fitting their ideas into cookie-cutter templates. Presenters become prisoner of the form, trapped by the limited and unimaginative slide layouts offered by the software: “title and content,” “picture with content,” “two content,” “comparison,” etc. Options for slide layouts can be broadened by purchasing various commercial “themes.” Still, the underlying problem is the same. The mechanics of the software sucker users into obsessing about fonts, colors, icons, logos, and the alignment of text boxes, distracting them from the main mission, which should be structuring a coherent argument to support their call to action. I always get better results by first drafting an old- fashioned speech and then crafting a deck, than by doing things the other way around.

3) Use PowerPoint to complement your spoken message, not duplicate it. How many times have you suffered through a presentation in which the speaker throws up a slide of text bullet points and proceeds to read through each item like a robot? There is no faster way to lose an audience. Your listeners can read faster than you can speak, so the minute you put up a slide telegraphing your message, they’ll stop listening to you, race ahead, and get bored waiting for you to catch up.

4) Use complete sentences and active verbs for slide titles. Not every slide needs a title. I often use slides that are a single image or word. But when I do use titles, I use complete sentences constructed in simple subject-verb-object form.

5) One message per slide. This is one of the most basic rules of good presenting. It borders on common sense. And yet I am always surprised by how often people flout it, cramming multiple graphs into a single frame. I also recommend stripping out footnotes and complicated source references. Your audience should be able to grasp the gist of each slide at a glance. If you need to present complex charts or data, distribute them in a separate printed handout.

6) Stick to large fonts. Many communications gurus swear by Guy Kawasaki’s 10-20-30 rule, which holds that presentations should have no more than 10 slides, which can be shown in no more than 20 minutes, and use text font no smaller than 30. I find the first two rules too confining. I sometimes use many slides presented in an almost Jason Bourne-like rapid succession. But on font-size, I couldn’t agree with Kawasaki more, especially if I’m presenting to a large group or an audience including anyone over age 30.