When is a Presentation not a Presentation?

Written on 30 November 2012

The deckument – a cross between a PowerPoint deck and a Word document – is a recipe for confusion and boredom. We should all make a pledge to never inflict them on innocent people again.

When Angela Garber coined the phrase “Death by PowerPoint” in 2001 she tapped into a deep vein of discomfort felt by everyone who had suffered at the hands of Microsoft’s presentation app. When Edward Tufte criticised the traditional presentation in his 2003 essay “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint”, few rushed to its defence. Even the US military are battling a PowerPoint-driven culture that produces such complex presentations that one general, confronted with a spaghetti-like depiction of Afghan conflict, remarked, “when we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”

There are many reasons why presentations – whether created in PowerPoint, Keynote, or OpenOffice – are so difficult to endure. So many reasons, in fact, that if I tried to list them all here I might break the internet. So I’m going to look at just one tactic that helps creators of bad presentations make us regret ever accepting that meeting invite. I call it the deckument.

Introducing the deckument

The deckument – a cross between a “deck” and a “document” – comes about when a presentation’s author forgets about creating an even vaguely visual experience and simply pastes reams of text, often from a Word document, into each slide.

The decision to create a deckument has terrible ramifications for the audience or, to be more accurate, the victims, because deckuments probably constitute the very worst form of PowerPoint presentation. Our eyes are assaulted by hundreds of poorly typeset words scattered across a glaring ten-foot high screen. Our ears are harassed by the presenter’s accompanying speech, distracting us from the task of reading all those words. And our brains, beaten into submission by this confusing sensory overload, seek solace in the safe haven of sleep.

Presenters in these situations will wonder why people are so disinterested, but even they probably realised midway through making the deckument that it wasn’t going to work out. Maybe they tried in vain to fix it, adopting tactics similar to the below:

But this superficial tinkering fails to address the real problem, which is more fundamental: by putting document content into a presentation, the presenter is confusing one type of media for another. It’s a category error, a basic mistake, the equivalent of Hollywood releasing films where the script’s text scrolls along the cinema screen for two hours in silence. Yet if it’s tackled early enough, it’s a very easy problem to avoid.

Steering clear of the deckument trap

The very first thing any content creator needs to do is to understand the medium they are creating for and presentations are no exception. The presentation is a bad medium for text documents because audiences cannot read at their own pace, are forced to hold their necks in the same position for upwards of an hour, and are being repeatedly distracted by the presenter. Presentations are, however, great for spoken exposition accompanied by visual aids. Presenters who understand this can avoid the nightmare scenario of the deckument.

Of course, not every presenter feels able to create visually effective presentations. You risk falling into the deckument trap when you think it’s something only designers can do, or that deadline pressure leaves you with no time to do anything other than paste text into PowerPoint.

These are both fallacies. Firstly, it doesn’t take Neville Brody to improve upon a block of dense text. Your slides may not end up in the Design Museum but even a half-decent stab at visual communication will be appreciated by your audience. And secondly, you should think about your audience’s time instead of your own: a slide that confuses an audience of 30 for 5 minutes wastes over two hours of precious human existence. So isn’t it worth you spending 20 minutes making that slide easier to understand?

Each deckument created shows a lack of respect for the medium of the presentation and – even worse – for the audience and their time. So let’s make a pledge: let’s never inflict deckuments on anyone again. We might not fully eradicate death by PowerPoint in our lifetimes, but by killing the deckument we’ll be off to a good start.


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