Thursday, November 6, 2008

The growing electronic menace

The idea behind power point presentations is to sit through 100 slides with our eyes glazed over, and then to do what all military organizations hope for ... to surrender to an overwhelming mass. – Richard Danzig, Navy Secretary

Corporate productivity was reasonably high till Microsoft invented Powerpoint. Ever since, it has been on a steady decline. It has reached a stage that when an employee wants to go on a vacation he has to make a presentation to his boss, which includes slides for title, need/occassion, reason for attendance, transition/backup, expected return, contact numbers at destination, thank you. What do you call it when you generate a 10 megabyte presentation that strains the bandwidth of the internet and clogs mailboxes in 2 hours, which could be communicated in a 2 minute conversation? Ah yes, technological advancement.

Before there were presentations, there were conversations, which were a little like presentations but people used fewer bullet points, no colours and charts and no one had to dim the lights. Powerpoint presentation is a triumph of process over product. It is more deadly than computer virus and is spreading very fast across the world in darkened rooms with overhead projectors. The genius of it is that it was designed for any idiot to use. You know, I learned it in a few hours! And by the way, these days, you can't ‘speak’ to senior management without having a PowerPoint presentation. Ever since the advent of Powerpoint, more bad plans with good slides have been approved over good plans with no slides.

Powerpoint has become a great tool for camouflaging lack of knowledge. No points for guessing why I love it. My knowledge levels on subjects can be classified as expert, moderate, low and Powerpoint-deep, in decreasing order of knowledge. Powerpoint can give an illusion of coherence and content to any topic which does not have it. And if you can add colour, graphs and graphics, you have a killer in your hands. You can make any point, otherwise irrelevant and illogical, relevant and logical, if made to dance in colour on a Powerpoint presentation.

Walking into a meeting without a PowerPoint presentation is like walking in without clothes. Earlier people used to kill meetings; these days Powerpoints do it more successfully. It has become the most effective sleeping pill, particularly when administered on a group of people. Powerpoint presentations too often resemble a school play - very loud, very slow, and very simple. It is only a matter of time before it will be used for anesthesia in hospitals and for torture in prisons.

But despite the complaints about Powerpoints, people don’t hesitate to inflict this upon others. Anybody who gets a powerpoint with good graphics immediately forwards it to all contacts in his address book, even before going through it fully. A classic case of ‘do unto others what you don’t want them to do to you’.

It is said that a good presentation should be like a woman's skirt: short enough to arouse interest but long enough to cover the essentials. However, I believe that the way to make a great presentation is to have a good beginning and a good ending, and then having the two as close together as possible. I feel that if one cannot explain things in two to three slides, then it is highly likely that it is bullshit. I don’t think I need to analyse and present 100 possible courses of action, when I am only going to recommend one or two.

The last presentation I made was to update the management about the last update I gave them on the meeting we had, to discuss what to cover in the upcoming organizational event, where we would discuss the future priorities. I hope you understand how easy it was for me to make the presentation when the topic was so simple!

The most amusing presentation I ever made was in one of my previous organizations where the appraisal was supposed to be accompanied by a presentation. Imagine the possibilities (of lies!) and the length of the presentations. When my boss asked me to add firepower to my presentation, I added photos of guns and bombs in the presentation and even attached a photo of a nuclear explosion. I am sure I don’t have to tell you that I was promoted that year.

Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems once famously quoted, "We had 12.9 gigabytes of (Microsoft) PowerPoint slides on our network. And I thought, 'What a huge waste of corporate productivity.' So we banned it. And we've had three unbelievable record-breaking fiscal quarters since we banned PowerPoint. Now, I would argue that every company in the world, if they would just ban PowerPoint, would see their earnings skyrocket. Employees would stand around going, 'What do I do? Guess I've got to go to work.'"

If power corrupts, then Powerpoint corrupts absolutely!