What Are IDEAs Made Of: PowerPoint

Mike Rea

IDEA Pharma

If you take a song from a CD and turn it into an mp3, you can never recover the original information from that mp3. Take that same song and tap it out on a table, and only someone who knows what you’re tapping will be able to guess its name. Thanks to Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made To Stick, there is a fantastic experiment to conduct – take any song you like, for example Old McDonald, and tap it out. Make it easy for your listener – give them titles of 9 or 10 songs it could be. You’ll be surprised at the outcome. The likelihood of them being able to tell which song you’re tapping is incredibly low. This will seem odd to you because you are hearing the song in your head as you tap – the words, the melody… Your listener, on the other hand, has no such assistance, and will inevitably guess wrongly.

Once upon a time, slides were regarded as visual aids for a speaker. There was an expectation that the ideas and information in the presentation would be delivered in words, using the full range of the language, and that charts, images or illustrations would help with transmission, by delivering greater information resolution (a chart or a table can convey many more pieces of information per square inch than words can).

Then, along came PowerPoint, and presentations changed forever…

But this is not a story about PowerPoint as a presentation tool, or a vilification of Microsoft – there are thousands of places to go to hear that story. Instead, this is about the significant damage done to the transmission of vital information when companies decide to use PowerPoint as an internal document.

Sending a presentation to someone and expecting them to understand what was meant is exactly like sending someone a recording of your taps on the table and expecting them to hear the song without any further assistance from you.

Slides should be narrated – have to be narrated. Taking away that narration leaves only a low resolution highlight. They are designed as a presentation tool, an aid to a presenting person.

So, sending a deck as ‘pre-read’ or writing a ‘brand plan’ into a deck is to leave out all of the critical argumentation, the ‘what we mean by this is…’, the ‘the critical thing to focus on in this slide is’ detail that counts. Unless your readers are psychic, they have no way to find out what they need from that deck.


“PowerPoint is not and never will be, a document of anyone’s thinking.”


Presentation gurus insist that slides should not be bullet heavy or text heavy, leaving all of that to the presenter. However, when developed as a document, a curious hybrid emerges – too much text to be presentable, but not enough to be standalone readable. An odd syntax develops – no accepted version of English. People oddly develop affiliations to certain styles of slide, insisting that one is ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong’, when in reality the only thing that is wrong is to expect the same file to do two jobs – be the drumbeat for a song, or be the whole song.

The problem of this whole trend is that ideas need detail. They need elaboration of the ‘What Ifs’, the ‘So Whats’, the alternatives, the rich small details and the major themes. Ideas need argumentation, logical explanation and corroboration. And those details are missing in a PowerPoint deck.  To ‘document’ something is to record it properly, not to sketch it out in caricature – PowerPoint is not and never will be, a document of anyone’s thinking.

One of our teams was recently sent a deck that needed to be turned into a proper Brand Plan document. Anyone who has ever used the ‘Export as Outline/ Rich Text’ function on PowerPoint knows how little information is actually contained, in addition to the charts and tables. There was simply too little in the deck to interpolate what was meant, even to a team who knew some of the background. So, in what way was that a ‘Brand Plan’? It was a presentation aid to a Brand Plan, one that needed a team to present it properly. And if that team happened to not be there, or to leave the company..?

So, what is the point? Are executives seriously saying ‘I’m too busy to read lots of information, so I would rather you didn’t give it to me. Instead, send me only the low resolution thumbnail that can’t possibly answer any questions I may have… I’d prefer to waste time wondering what exactly you meant.’

If the ‘Print’ function on PowerPoint was disabled, those of us who trade in strategy, in IDEAs, would be better off. We need to stop anyone believing that it can serve as a document.

About the author:

Mike Rea is a Principal with IDEA Pharma, who enjoys taking a look outside the industry to learn how it can think differently. For direct enquiries he can be contacted on mike.rea@ideapharma.com and for more information on IDEA Pharma please see http://www.ideapharma.com/what/default.htm.

The next WAIMO piece will be in a couple of weeks.

Do you suffer from ‘death by PowerPoint’?