The Road to Hell is Paved with PowerPoint Slides

Road To Hell ArtIf Dante were writing the Divine Comedy today, he would undoubtedly update his description of the ninth circle of Hell. Because we all know what Satan is doing to torture all the poor souls trapped there for eternity.

He’s showing them a PowerPoint presentation.

It’s way too long. Its slides contain long paragraphs of plain text. He’s reading the text, verbatim, from the slide, as if the screen were a teleprompter. And he’s thoughtfully given you a document that has each slide printed, full-size, so you can read it all yourself.

So everyone is leafing through the handout, reading ahead. They’re not really paying any attention to Satan – after all, they’re confused. Do they read the paper they’ve been given? Do they look at the speaker? Do they look at the presentation on screen?

And it’s very sad because, by all accounts, Satan can be a wonderful, even mesmerizing, speaker.

But then, that’s what makes it Hell.

So how do they use PowerPoint in Heaven? There are those who say they don’t, and that’s what makes it Heaven. But that’s being too dismissive of something that can be, when used properly, a very useful tool.

The difference between Heaven and Hell, in this case, is not only how PowerPoint is used, but why.

Does Your Point Need Power?

Are you giving a speech that’s meant to rally, inspire or engage people? Are you a good speaker? Are you (or do you have) a good speechwriter?

Then you probably don’t need a PowerPoint. Presidents don’t use them for inaugural speeches or state of the union addresses (although arguably some should). Martin Luther King didn’t need AV support for his “I Have a Dream” speech. And in case you wonder if a PowerPoint would have enhanced Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, you can judge for yourself here.

PowerPoint is the “power tool” of speechcraft. If you want more beautiful and meaningful one-of-a-kind work, you’re more likely to get it from a skilled craftsperson using hand tools only. Power tools are more suited to mass production.

The best test for whether or not you should use PowerPoint is a series of questions:

Is there something my audience needs to see? Do I need audiovisual aids? Would I show them pictures? Will they need to look at charts and graphs? Would I feel, while giving this presentation, like I should be drawing on a board so they can take notes, grasp a difficult concept or have a diagram? Would there be anything in my PowerPoint besides words that I’ll be saying?

If the answer to all of these questions is “no,” you don’t need a PowerPoint. You just need a well-written speech and a good speaker. A PowerPoint will actually detract from, rather than enhance, your presentation.

If, on the other hand, you’re going to want to show pictures of your factory, a portfolio of your work or a visual reminder of your process, PowerPoint is a great way to do it. It’s also a great way to take people through a large amount of data, or walk them through the contents of a long and complicated document – such as a plan. As long as that information is broken down into nice, bite-sized chunks.

Mass Production

Not everybody is a good speaker. You might need to carry the same message to multiple groups, and you’ll need multiple speakers – whose speechifying abilities vary.

This is the time for mass production: PowerPoint can help you enforce consistency of your message regardless of the speaking ability of your speakers.

In the agency business, we see this most commonly in sales and educational presentations we prepare for clients. There is a backbone of core information – the key points that must be made. And the speakers are allowed to improvise off that backbone as their ability, their comfort level and their audience requires.

The Multi-Media Experience

The other great application for PowerPoint is, unfortunately, the one that’s least-often used: as a multi-media tool to enhance an overall presentation.

Photos, film clips or highlights to introduce a speaker. A series of videotaped customer testimonials to help make the case. A series of photos, titles and music to open the presentation and reinforce the company brand. PowerPoint can actually be a very heavenly multi-media tool when it’s used for good and not for evil.

Seven Deadly Sins

There are dozens of informative sites and blogs that offer pointers on good and evil … er, right and wrong things to do in creating an effective PowerPoint presentation (one of my favorites is here). But here are the seven deadly sins that will land you in PowerPoint Hell:

1. Too much text. It’s tempting to use the presentation as your TelePrompTer, put your entire presentation on it, and simply read it. But your audience can read to themselves faster than you can read out loud to them. So they’re finishing the slide when you’re still a quarter of the way through … and not listening to you at all. The less they can read, the better; the best use of a slide is no text at all, but a picture that underscores your words.

2. Too much crap. Like all Microsoft programs, PowerPoint comes with all kinds of bells and whistles. There are dozens of transition effects, scores of ways to make text and photos appear and disappear, and, of course, 75 or 100 fonts. Effects are like serrano peppers: a little, used well, will add a little energy to the dish. Dump in too many and the heat overpowers the flavor and makes it hotter than … well, you know.

3. Too much, period. PowerPoint is a great way to present data and key points. But too many people believe that, because they’re putting them on a dozen PowerPoint slides, they’ll get people to remember 30 or 40 “key points.”

Remember, the name of the program is PowerPoint. Singular. You want them to come away from the presentation remembering one key point. Each slide should be one element to support the main point. If you haven’t honed your message to one key point yet, you’re not ready to present.

4. Too little design. The flip side, of course, is a dish that’s too bland. Nothing says “I’m just going through the motions” like a white background with black Times Roman … or one of the old, boring Microsoft templates. Your best bet is always something that’s designed especially for your audience or your organization – especially if it helps reinforce your brand identity.

5. Bad design. No matter what, avoid the temptation to use the Microsoft clip art that comes with the programs. People have seen it – and slept through it – a million times already. Find illustrations or photography that are imaginative and exciting.

6. Too small. That P&L statement that looks great in 10-point type on an 8.5 x 11 page in front of you? It’s not going to be readable on a PowerPoint slide … unless you have each person in the audience come up to the screen and look at it. If you can’t read it on your monitor from across the room, don’t put it in the presentation.

7. Handout redundancy. If your handouts are merely the same thing you’re projecting on the screen, you really don’t need one or the other. If you want your audience to look at the screen and listen to you, don’t give them a handout; distribute it as a take-away after the presentation. If you want them to read ahead and not pay attention to you, give them the presentation as a handout. Just don’t be surprised when they finish slide 30 while you’re still reading slide 10. Oh, and remember to wake them when you’re done.

Stay away from those deadly sins, and there’s a good chance you can avoid PowerPoint Hell. And if you need any help with absolution, you know whom to call.



The Story of the People Who Told Stories

Storytelling is not dead yet. In fact, it’s getting better.

StoriesOnce upon a time, we grew up learning things from people who told stories. We entertained ourselves with people who told stories. We enriched our minds, constructed our faiths and built our businesses through people who told stories.

Then, one day, from deep within a dark, foreboding cave near San Jose – unearthing itself from decades’ worth of Red Bull cans, pizza boxes and Foosball tables – the big, bad Internet reared its pixelly head. It gobbled up all the storytellers. Then it pooped them all out again in pretty JPEGs, cool GIFs and 200-word chunks of bullet points.

The end.

At least, that’s the conclusion we’re offered in a recent post on Adobe’s in which Pum Lefubre, chief creative officer at Design Army, declares that “Storytelling is dead.”

The post cites a study released by Microsoft a few months ago that has received plenty of publicity on its own. It declares that the “human attention span is 8.25 seconds,” shorter than that of a goldfish.

It’s time we all stopped using this study to declare that the human neurological, intellectual and emotional pathways that developed over 200,000 years of constantly changing and evolving media have been completely reconfigured by the Internet in just 20 years.

Without wading too deeply into the weeds of the study itself, let’s just say that the testing was measuring brainwave activity of people assigned a “gamified” task: noting the sequence of different objects, or classifying vowels and consonants and odd or even numbers. Not exactly the kind of riveting activity one plans for a big Friday night.

Sadly, the

Sadly, the “Methodology” section of the Microsoft study does not explain how they measured the attention span of a goldfish.

And the 8.25-second figure is for only one type of attention: Transient attention, a short-term response to a new or different stimulus that distracts you from something else. This is actually a good thing, because it means we are able to more quickly transition back to selective sustained attention – the task we were focusing on. The study, curiously, doesn’t offer a duration on this … mostly likely because it wouldn’t offer the clickbait potential of a comparison to a member of the carp family.

There’s more than one way to skin a fish.

In all fairness, much of the advice Ms. Lefubre offers marketing communicators as a “replacement” for “storytelling” is sound advice. Eliminating unnecessary messaging is always a good thing to do – including a tagline if, indeed, it isn’t needed. Understand the value of less as more. And, by all means, don’t “dumb down” your material and spoon-feed your audience. Leave something to the imagination to draw them in.

After all, those just happen to be some of the key roles of, um, storytelling.

The examples that accompany the article – all very fine work – don’t demonstrate the death of storytelling; they simply represent another way – a more visual way – of telling a story. Sometimes this is the most effective way. Sometimes it’s not.

It depends on what story you’re trying to tell. And to whom you’re telling it. A poster for a ballet company’s performance of Alice in Wonderland isn’t exactly telling the same story, to the same audience, as a message to a medical device manufacturer suggesting using a silicone elastomer over PVC, latex or TPE. Nor is a brochure designed to get people – most of whom have no previous connection with the organization – to contribute to a local Habitat for Humanity chapter’s endowment because it was established as a memorial to a beloved former mayor.

Those might need a different kind of story.

‘I’m not dead yet!’

Of course, this is nothing new. I’ve been a marketing communications writer for 39 years. For almost all that time, I’ve heard people say: “Nobody will read anything that long.” “People don’t have the attention span for copy that long.” And, yes, “Storytelling is dead.”

By people selling the next big media thing – and, of course, art directors – storytelling has been rumored dead more than Paul McCartney.

The Internet world didn’t create the shorter-is-always better shibboleth. But it’s determined to accelerate it – hence studies that confirm our shrinking attention spans. (These studies, of course, reinforce the need for devices and software to enable that acceleration. See! They’re telling a story!)

But are people really too impatient to read more than 100 words? Let’s find out, by looking at what was at the top 10 on the New York Times’ best-selling fiction list for one week in June of this year:

  1. Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told By Christian, 576 pages
  2. The Girl on the Train, 336 pages
  3. The Rumor, 384 pages
  4. Tom Clancy Under Fire, 512 pages
  5. Country, 336 pages
  6. The President’s Shadow, 416 pages
  7. The Martian, 387 pages
  8. All the Light We Cannot See, 531 pages
  9. Finders Keepers, 448 pages
  10. In the Unlikely Event, 416 pages

At an average of 250 words per page, those 10 novels average 108,000 words each. And a hell of a lot of people have either bought or downloaded them. It’s not that people won’t take the time to read – or listen to, or watch – a story. They just won’t waste their time with one that’s not told well. E.L. James, apparently, being an exception.

People won’t pay attention to marketing communications messages that don’t tell an interesting, engaging or compelling story. But if you’re telling a good one (or a titillating one that taps into repressed S&M fantasies), people will take the time to read it.

We’re wired for it. Since language developed, we have explained our world, built our businesses, made our reputations and educated our children through the telling of stories. And stories are like products – the ones that survive are the good ones.

I think we’re all a little tired of “brand storytelling” as a puffed-up cliche to describe copywriting. But the process of storytelling is far from dead. As more and more people try to tell more and more stories – and, as they try to tell them the wrong way, or tell them poorly – the ability to tell a story well is growing more important every day.

The businesses that tell them well are the ones that will live happily ever after.

Political Advertising: It’s ‘Different,’ All Right

Going to participate in American democracy? Wear your boots.

The first time I was asked to lend my advertising experience to a political campaign, most of my suggestions were quickly shot down.

“Political advertising,” I was told, “isn’t like ‘regular’ advertising.”

Boy, is that true. And another election cycle, about to close, underscores the ugly differences.

First, there’s the fact that, unlike “regular” advertising, in which claims must substantiated and deception is illegal, there are no standards for honesty in political advertising.


So Mark Schauer, Democratic candidate for Michigan governor, can claim that the Rick Snyder administration cut $1 billion from education. Which is completely untrue.

So the Michigan Democratic Party can run an ad quoting Michigan Senate candidate Ken Horn totally out of context and completely – and intentionally deceptively — changing the meaning of the quote. The Michigan Republican Party can run an ad picturing Horn’s opponent, Stacy Erwin Oakes, with expensive luxury items, implying — deceptively intentionally — that she is misspending taxpayer funds.

Yet during this same election cycle, the Federal Trade Commission has gone after dozens of companies for making advertising claims that were misleading, false or deceptive, including:

  • A claim that an online educational program would improve students’ test scores
  • Claims that a Gerber baby food line can help prevent infants from developing allergies
  • AT&T’s reference to “unlimited” data service in some of its network plans
  • A warning shot across the bows of more than 60 national advertisers that they faced fines if they did not correct inadequate disclosures in their advertising.

Double Standard

Courts have repeatedly ruled that commercial advertising is free speech under the protection of the first amendment. So why is there regulatory oversight over one form of free speech, but not over another? Why is commercial “free speech” less “free” than political “free speech?”

One could make a constitutional, founders-intent-based argument: Political speech must be protected from government interference. Which, I think, is vulnerable to an equally compelling counter-argument: Doesn’t the selection of our leaders merit the same standards of truth in advertising as our choice of a cell phone plan?

The truth, I suspect, has more to do with who makes the rules. Political advertising is exempt from regulation for the same reason that political calls are exempt from the “Do Not Call” registry: politicians write the laws.

That we have one standard of “truth” for commercial free speech, and another – or, rather no standard — for political free speech is the height of hypocrisy. Worse, it is a disservice to voters, and to our republic.

Of course, there’s another big difference between political advertising and “regular” advertising – or, what I think we should call “real” advertising.

‘Real Advertising’

Real advertising is designed to build markets. Advertising practices that do not are quickly abandoned. Political advertising, on the other hand, is the only type of advertising that’s allowed to actually shrink the market.

Let’s look at it this way. We’ve all seen advertising from Coke and Pepsi, or McDonald’s and Burger King, fierce competitors in industries in which a single point of market share is worth billions of dollars.

There’s a reason that Coke’s advertising messages are not “Pepsi tastes terrible,” why Pepsi’s spots are not “Coke rots your guts out.” There’s a reason why Burger King doesn’t call McDonald’s hamburger a dried-out wad of cardboard, and why McDonald’s doesn’t out BK’s “flame broiling” as a quick flash after the burger’s already fried.

That’s because both sides know what happens once that kind of battle escalates. People get turned off to both McDonald’s and Burger King — and go to neither. Yes, one or the other may gain a point or two of market share, but it’s of a shrinking market.

While commercial advertising occasionally ventures into bashing the competition, those ill-advised forays generally don’t last long. Nobody wins when you turn off potential customers.

The people who head up the firms that handle most of this country’s political advertising, however, may have gotten that memo, but their hubris made them ignore it. Political advertising strategists are fiercely competitive but, in general, poor business strategists. Either they fail to understand the difference between primary and secondary marketing, or they cynically ignore it.

Primary marketing is delivering the prospect to the first decision: I’m going to buy a car, I’m going to buy a burger, I’m going to vote for a candidate.

Secondary marketing is delivering the prospect to the actual buying decision: I’m going to buy a Ford, I’m going to buy a Whopper, I’m going to vote for Snyder.

The Shrinking Market

When the entire advertising landscape consists of messages that say, “all the car choices are dangerous,” “all the burger choices will make you sick,” and “all the candidates are crooks,” what happens? The market shrinks.

So why has U.S. voter turnout continued an overall downward trajectory since … well, 1872? Why, in 1960, did 75% of Americans feel confident in the capabilities of government while today, only 40% do?

I saw a wonderful anecdotal support for this just this week. A candidate’s campaign ran a Facebook post linking to its latest ad — an ad touting all the ways the opponent was attacking the middle class.

One of the comments following the post said, “That’s why I’m not voting for any of them.” What’s even more ironic is that advertising designed to make people angry — as most negative ads do — has been demonstrated to be the least effective way to make people change their minds.

So you’re not only making the market smaller, you’re not even moving the needle on your share of it. Those of us in the “regular” advertising world are not allowed to consider that “effective” advertising.

There is a considerable body of research on the topic and it is, naturally, conflicting. I suspect that’s because much of it is done on behalf of political consultants to prove that their methods are effective. (It’s a running joke in “real” advertising that salespeople from any form of media will have charts and graphs to demonstrate why their TV, radio, online or skywriting plan will produce the highest ROI.)

Those of us who practice advertising every day — “real” advertising, that is — know that you can’t get into a mudslinging war without getting dirty yourself. And when the public looks at two “products” covered with mud, they shake their heads, move on and look for products sold somewhere there are adults in the room.

Negative political advertising, and deceptive political advertising, do, in fact work. If your goal is to turn people away from the polls, erode their confidence in our leaders and increase their cynicism about our institutions of government.

So the question for our political advertising experts would be: Is that what’s best for America?