The world’s greatest communicators don’t use PowerPoint. Maybe you should follow their lead.

By Geoffrey JamesContributing editor,

As I’ve pointed out previously, there’s scientific evidence that PowerPoint–not the software but the concept–is worse than useless. The problem: Displaying words on a screen while speaking (regardless if you’re reading or riffing) does NOT increase audience comprehension and retention. Therefore, the time spent building a PowerPoint deck is wasted.

That column got sparked some not-unexpected reader umbrage, since people don’t like being told that they’ve wasted a huge chunk of their working lives creating presentations that weren’t helping them communicate better.

The most common complaint was “you’re blaming the tool, not poor usage of the tool.” That’s missing the point, though, because the problem isn’t the quality of the presentation but the fact that displaying words while speaking words creates cognitive overload, which blurs your message.

Another common complaint was “If it’s useless, why do so many people use it?” Well, the business world is chockablock with common but counterproductive ideas, like open plan offices, which reduce rather than increase collaboration, and corporate-speak, which reduces group intelligence. Just because everyone does it doesn’t mean it works.

In any case, the world’s truly great communicators have long since dumped PowerPoint (and its clones) in favor of approaches that don’t use wordy slides. Here are four alternative approaches:

  1. Go entirely slide-less (Sir Ken Robinson)

One of the most-watched (62 million views) and best-beloved TED Talks of all time features education reformer Sir Ken Robinson. Rather than clog up his message with visually-distracting slides, he presents his ideas in such an engaging and clear manner that his words go to the heart and stick in the brain.

While this oratory approach does require effort to create and rehearse, it’s effort that actually increases audience comprehension and retention. As an added benefit, a slide-less speech puts the focus on the speaker rather than on the screen, making for a deeper emotional connection between speaker and audience.

What about takeaways? Well, when people don’t know that they’ll be getting a handout of the slides, they’re much more likely to take notes, an activity that greatly increases retention, especially when done with pen or pencil.

  1. Start with a briefing document (Jeff Bezos)

Rather having presentations at his meetings, Jeff Bezos requires whoever called the meeting to prepare a 1-3 page briefing document containing the relevant ideas and requested decisions. Attendees spend the first five minutes silently reading the document and then conduct a short discussion of its contents.

Creating a fully-formed, readable, stand-alone document demands that you thoroughly think your ideas through and then express yourself clearly. This is more work than creating an outline of bullet points, but ensures that you communicate with greater precision, which is to everyone’s benefit.

Furthermore, a briefing document is more useful as a take-away than a slide deck (or a video of your presentation) because it contains fully-formed thoughts that can be read and absorbed quickly. The hard copy also provides a place where participants can take notes.

  1. Provide fill-in-the-blank workbooks (Tony Robbins)

One of the most memorable presentations I’ve ever experienced was at a Tony Robbins event some years ago. Robbins, who is newly controversial but remains a phenomenally effective communicator, handed out bound workbooks containing the points he planned to make, but with blank areas for the audience to fill in the missing portions.

While this approach seems like it should create cognitive overload (because it involves spoken words and written words), it doesn’t do that because the audience looks at and listens to the speaker, who then directs their attention to the workbook and waits while they’ve filled in the missing words. It gives structure to the audience’s note taking.

Creating this kind of workbook is about the same amount of effort as creating a slide deck, but it makes the presentation more memorable, rather than more difficult to understand. BTW, I still remember many of the points Robbins made…over two decades later.

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