Avoid Death by PowerPoint — Follow the Pentagon to Stronger Connections with Your Base

When even the Pentagon deems PowerPoint an ineffective communications channel — failing to build understanding and motivate action among its team — nonprofit marketing practitioners better pay attention.

I was stunned to see this headline in today’s New York Times, responding to the this impenetrable slide representing the situation in Afghanistan.  It’s not real page one, above-the-fold material but it is a leading story for every nonprofit communicator.

PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.)…

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding…but some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

McMaster sees the greatest PowerPoint communications failure in bullet point slides that “take no account of interconnected political, economic and ethnic forces. “

But it’s not the tool that’s dumbing-down conversation and limiting understanding. It’s the way we use it.

If you’re not convinced, get this:  The Pentagon uses bullet-point heavy PowerPoint decks for media briefings when they want to say very little. The 25-minute-slide-deck followed by five minutes of Q&A ensures that works every time.

Here are the changes I’ve made (and guide client orgs to make) after seeing audiences fail to connect with bullet-point slides like the one above, time and time again. I:

  • Avoid bullet-point format altogether in in-person presentations, using graphic-only slides with a headline at most and use it only supplemented by graphics (as illustrations on text slides and some graphic-only slides) in webinars.
  • Hold on distributing slide handouts until post-presentation — otherwise I find participants narrow their learning to what’s on the slides and not the other 90% of learning that’s presented orally.

Response to these changes has been hugely  positive and I recommend your organization does the same.

Even more importantly, extend these precepts to all communications:

  • Write and speak succinctly — readers and listeners have less time and patience then every — but don’t dumb down your message or cut out key aspects.
  • Supplement your narrative messaging with images — they really can convey 1,000 words.

What are your strategies for communicating effectively without dumbing down your message? Please comment below. Thanks!

P.S. Messages that connect are a priority for all organizations and the prerequisite for motivating your base to act. Learn how to craft the most essential message — your tagline. Download the Nonprofit Tagline Report, filled with must-dos, don’t dos, case studies and 2,500+ nonprofit tagline examples!

Nancy Schwartz on April 27, 2010 in Branding and Messages, Presentations | 2 comments
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  • I really like this suggestions for revamping the use of powerpoint. I try everything in my power to avoid using powerpoint because I think it is often so poorly done. BUT, with these suggestions, I will be able to use powerpoint effectively (but still only if I am forced to create a powerpoint!).

    I recently wrote a blog post about how to prepare for a presentation that complements your ideas. You may want to check it out: http://jessicajourney.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/presentingpizazz/

    Keep up the great work! I enjoy your posts. :)

  • You hit the jackpot, Nancy. A co-worker pointed me to the NYT article. We have both been trying to improve PowerPoints presented by the researchers in our office who
    .read the slides
    .put everything from their papers on the slides
    .use inconsistent fonts, colors, and unnecessary images

    And on and on. I (bravely) sent out an Edward Tufte article about PowerPoints to everyone, but nothing has changed. How about a PowerPoint training session for researchers and any others who violate the rules (Army officers)?

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