The REAL death by PowerPoint

The REAL Death by PowerPoint

I think Edward Tufte started it. Back in 2003 he wrote that PowerPoint is Evil. The New York Times took up the call and claimed PowerPoint makes you dumb. Last year Matthias Poehm, a former Swiss software engineer in Geneva, became so disgusted with PowerPoint he started his own political party to ban it. The PowerPoint rhetoric extends to politics, with Obama’s PowerPoint-fueled state of the union address and questions of whether Romney will govern by PowerPoint. In just about any company, there’s a strong under-current of anti-PowerPoint sentiment. Alexei Kapterev immortalized it as Death by PowerPoint.

Naturally there is a counter-point to the ban PowerPoint brigade. Nancy Duarte helped Al Gore go from a wooden, failed presidential candidate to an animated, oscar winning,  inconvenient truth-telling, PowerPoint*wielding Nobel prize winner. Garr Reynolds preaches the gospel of Presentation Zen. Cliff Atkinson can show you how to get Beyond Bullet Points. All great stuff. Every one of them will help you take your existing message and bring it to life through PowerPoint.

3 Types of Conversation

But, (and I really don’t care about the pun) they miss the point. It doesn’t matter how well it’s dressed, or how beautiful it is, your message has to matter. And there are only two conversations that matter. Everything else is just noise. The first conversation is the one that frames or re-frames people’s view of the world. The second is the one that moves them to action.

Conversation 1. Framing.

Framing is the art of shaping opinion. In its simplest sense, a frame provides a structure by which we understand something and form a point of view on it. We all do it, and we’re usually unconscious of it.  For example, in the last Summer Olympics, US medal tallies were stack ranked in terms of total medals won. That meant that every medal was of equal value. The US was the top of the heap and the clear winner in this frame with 110 medals. In contrast, Chinese medal tallies were stack ranked in terms of gold, then silver then bronze. The top of the list belonged to the country that had the most gold medals. In this frame, China won with 51 golds.

There are two keys for a frame or re-frame to be successful: first, it has to have a direct effect on the audience. If you live in the US, it’s likely that you don’t care much about the relationship between Azerbaijan and Armenia because it doesn’t affect you. Deny it all you like, but we all have egos and we’re all narcissistic. That means we all put great stock in how this affects me. Second, use language and structure to put people on your side of the issue. The great Pink Slime debate is a good example. No-one wants to eat something that contains slime. Lean finely textured beef on the other hand sounds pretty tasty.

Conversation 2. Action

This is the punctuation mark at the end of the conversation. It’s the goal, the payoff. You want an action from the other guy. Whether that’s to buy something from you, buy into what you’re saying or take a specific action, you want something. Unfortunately, most people go into a conversation, or build a PowerPoint, without knowing what that something is. In speaking it’s the equivalent of opening your mouth before thinking, and then trailing off in volume as you circle around your point. In presenting, it’s the equivalent of opening up PowerPoint and starting to type. I wrote an earlier post on how to deal with this.  Donald Calne the author of Within Reason: Rationality and Human Behavior wrote,  “The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions”. The way I like to think of it — Reason leads to judgement, Emotion leads to Action. This means in the Action conversation, there has to be a strong emotional thread to move people.  Relying on a purely rational argument or business case is a start, but it won’t get you across the finish line.

Conversation 3. Noise (The one you shouldn’t be having)

You have conversations every day. You make presentations, and pitch ideas all the time. Now think how many times have you had to repeat yourself, or had a follow-up where you’re thinking, “I’ve told them this already.” That’s a sure sign that you’ve had a noisy conversation. What Dan Roam calls Blah Blah Blah. If that happens to you a lot, you have a problem.  I’ve seen senior executives who don’t last long, not because they’re not good people — they are smart, hard-working, and well-intentioned. They fail because they have noisy conversations.

Successful people aren’t noisy. Their conversations are almost always frame or action conversations, usually both. They hit the sweet spot and cut the noise. Successful sales people frame up what they are selling as the answer to the client’s problem. They understand the agenda of their customer and frame or position their product as a solution to that. Leader’s frame the vision of the company in a way that employees can see themselves in the picture and invite action that lines up with the strategy. Creative people and innovators re-frame problems in order to approach them differently and produce disruptive, game-changing work.

*O.K. Keynote. Apple maniacs please refrain from comment.

Books referenced in this post:



Gavin_Animated-GifGavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

More at Google+Facebook and Pinterest. Comments are welcome, links are appreciated. If you’re interested in writing guest posts for this blog, please contact me.


  1. Jason Henkel | June 14, 2012 at 3:20 pm

    fantastic article. something to consider every time i open my mouth. thanks!

    • Gavin | June 15, 2012 at 1:32 pm

      Jason – thanks for your comment – I am glad you found it helpful!

  2. Danie | June 18, 2012 at 7:42 am

    PPT slides are useful when used in the right places and circumstances. Don’t badmouth something that contributes to learning and development. Rather teach people to design beautiful slides and do elegant presentations. Steve Jobs changed six industries with the aid of elegant presentations.

    • Gavin | June 18, 2012 at 3:03 pm


      Perhaps I was not clear enough. I don’t think PowerPoint is the problem. Nor do I think it’s bad that people try to create beautiful slides and elegant presentations. That’s a worthy goal. But the point is this – you have to know what you are setting out to do first. Steve Jobs never set out with the goal of simply creating elegant presentations. He set out in his keynotes, to frame up the way people saw the world (with Apple, or the latest Apple product, being the answer to that) and Move them to Action (witness the PR furor, product sales and stock market movement that his presentations created).

      People trying to imitate what Steve Jobs did on the surface (make beautiful and elegant presentations) sometimes miss his intention. That’s my point.


  3. Chantal Bosse | June 18, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    Great article! I agree so much with the importance of our message and triggering emotions. As a matter of fact, I will share a French summary on my blog linking back to your article so my readers can read the entire article. Should be done next week or the one after.


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  5. ffolliet (@ffolliet) | June 28, 2012 at 10:37 am

    excellent points. the best prepared presenter and presentation should always consider framing and action in the construction of the piece and be prepared, even at the last minute, to adjust in delivery.

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  8. Alan B | September 1, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    To be fair. Garr and Nancy both address storytelling and the substance of your content and not just your packaging as your post seems to suggest.

    • Gavin | September 1, 2013 at 1:27 pm

      Alan, thanks for the comment. I see your point. Storytelling is a useful vehicle, and it’s a very current idea in presenting and content marketing circles. I am not diminishing what both Presentation Zen and SlideOlogy (or resonate) talk about. I think there is great material there.
      But, based on my observation of people using PowerPoint (and just looking at both books and seeing where they spend their time) I still think most people don’t go in with a purpose. Or at least don’t stick with it long enough to make it work for them before the act of producing the deck and presenting overtakes them. That’s where clearly deciding on the frame you want to use and the action you want to take comes in.

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