Strategy is about nuance and narrative; telling compelling stories about the future that frame problems in useful ways, offer up solutions to deal with those problems, and inspire specific actions.
Given that, it’s strange that strategists – from consultancies to creative agencies – have such love for slide decks. (I know I’ve spent my working life creating more of them than I’d be comfortable admitting.) They’re a spectacularly lousy way to convey exactly the sorts of information that strategists are typically trying to convey.
Decks enforce a linear flow that makes navigation through the narrative difficult. If they’re presented, the pace is controlled by the presenter, and it’s impossible for the viewer to skip ahead or return to something for a second look and a longer thought. A point the speaker makes might spark a thought; will it be covered later in the presentation? We just don’t know, and are forced to either interrupt or potentially forget a useful question. A later point might make us see an earlier one in a new light; but in the relentless march of a presentation, we’re unable to go back to reconsider.
Even if the deck isn’t being presented, the structure of a deck makes narrative difficult. In an ordinary narrative document, a book or a report or an essay, it’s perfectly natural for an idea to span a page and a half, and then the next section begin mid-page; or for one idea to take up just one short paragraph. But slide decks make spanning pages awkward, coercing you into a one-to-one mapping between ideas and pages. The result is small points being blown up out of proportion, and larger points being compressed down out of recognition.
Then there’s the choice of what information to include at all. Either all the information lives in the deck, in which case the result is dense and impenetrable.
Or else the slide decks are sparse and all of the information is in the voiceover. That’s nicer for those in the room, certainly. But it makes the deck itself useless for anyone who wasn’t there, giving them nothing but glib platitudes and forcing them to seek out a recording, or second-hand information, from those who were there.
Presentations are inefficient, too. An analysis at Amazon found that a typical Word document within the business had 3,000–4,000 characters per page, whereas a typical PowerPoint presentation had 440 characters per page. That’s a six-to-seven-times difference in information density between narrative documents and presentations. People also read three times faster than the speed at which the typical presenter talks. As Edward Tufte points out, the average PowerPoint slide contains material that would take about eight seconds to read to oneself. So in terms of both time and space, presentations are an enormously inefficient way of conveying information.
Presentations also conflate the quality of the idea being discussed with the quality of its presentation. Amazon again:
“A dynamic presenter could lead a group to approve a dismal idea. A poorly organised presentation could confuse people, produce discussion that was rambling and unfocused, and rob good ideas of the serious consideration they deserved. A boring presentation could numb the brain so completely that people tuned out or started checking their email, thereby missing the good idea lurking beneath the droning voice and uninspiring visuals.”
So if decks, presented or read, are so lousy, why is it that they’re so ubiquitous? I suspect the reason that decks have taken over is that… whisper it… they’re much, much easier to write than strong narratives. Getting your thoughts in order and condensing them into a tight, compelling, 1,000–1,500-word narrative is significantly more difficult, and requires you to understand the underlying issues in a much greater depth, than pulling together a 20-slide deck on the same subject. Presentations are easy to produce, and have the performative theatrics of action about them even if no action results from them.
I suspect they’re not going anywhere any time soon, but it’s worth thinking about whether they’re the right tool for the job next time you reach for one. And as a manager, consider whether requiring your underlings to present to you is the best use of their time – or the best way for you to make a decision.