PowerPoint Presenters Anonymous: Breaking The Habit

Hi, my name is _______ and I’m dependent on PowerPoint.  It started out slowly.  At first, I did it because it was what everyone was doing.  And, it was relatively easy to fall into the habit.  The software  was easy.  It made me actually think about my message.  And, nobody ever got fired or thrown out of a meeting for using PowerPoint.  Eventually, it came to the point that I couldn’t even imagine doing a sales or other type of pitch without a deck of PowerPoint slides.  I would just feel naked.


Does this describe you?  Be honest.  In what percentage of your presentations and meetings do you use PowerPoint (is it close to 100%)?  Do you simply feel “unprepared” getting in front of a group unless you have some slides?  If so, then read on.  You too can break the habit.


Now, I’m not saying that PowerPoint is a bad application.  In fact, for what it does, it does pretty well and it is powerful when it needs to be and has all sorts of neat functionality.  My issue is not with the application, but with the premise.


First off, a little background (and a little bit of a disclaimer).  When I started my first company, I actually banned the use of PowerPoint for just about all of our meetings – both internal and external.  This “rule” stayed in place for about 7 years.  My issue was not that I didn’t like PowerPoint, but I just found that it got in the way.  It locked me in and forced me to devise a “message” or a “story” without knowing enough about the customer.  As it turned out, life was just fine without PowerPoint   We made sales, closed deals, evangelized and educated – all without PowerPoint.  


If you’re getting skeptical, try and stick with me for a bit.  Lets assume for a minute that my situation was not that different from yours and that there was nothing particularly special about my startup that made it uniquely positioned to live without PowerPoint.


My thesis:  In most cases, you should not be delivering a presentation, but having a conversation.


Lets assume that you are making some sort of pitch.  The most common is a sales pitch, so that’s what we’ll use.  However, my points below apply equally well to other kinds of pitches (like an investor pitch).


Why PowerPoint Presentations Often Don’t Work


  1. Too One-Sided:  I’m a big believer in somewhat “balanced” conversations with an audience.  In my experience, it is much easier to convince a customer to buy when you can engage them.  Its really hard to engage them if you’re doing all the talking.  PowerPoint presentations don’t necessarily cause you to say too much, but it sets the wrong stage and it just winds up that way.  As soon as your first slide is up on screen, people assume you’ll be doing most of the talking.


  1. Too Presumptuous:  When crafting a PowerPoint deck, you are almost automatically presuming a bunch of stuff that simply might not be true.  The biggest assumption is that customers care about what you have to say.  In many cases, they don’t.  While you drone on about this feature and that benefit and how your software is “scalable, flexible and powerful” the odds of your closing a deal are actually going down – not up.


  1. Too Much Message Lock-In:  Think back on the number of times you’ve done a presentation with PowerPoint and when you’ve wished that what was up on the screen wasn’t there.  But, you feel like you have to say something anyway, because there’s that slide that everybody is now looking at and reading.  A major issue with using PowerPoint is that it takes away some of your flexibility.  I’m not suggesting that you should be “spinning” a story here and changing your message to pander to the audience.  What I am  saying is that there are a million possible things you could say during a presentation.  Which points you highlight and what you actually decide to communicate should be a function of what you have learned about the customer and what furthers the cause and not what just happens to be on the slide on the screen.  You should be driving the message – not your slides.


  1. Too Detailed:  Many people create PowerPoint decks that are “stand-alone”.  The rationale here is that people should be able to look at the slides and have a general idea of what the presentation is about.  This is totally and completely wrong.  In fact, if your presentation can do a pretty good job communicating your message on its own (i.e. without you), then it’s the wrong presentation.  If you’re going to do a presentation, it should be simple.  For a great article on this, go read Guy Kawasaki’s Article.  This also why you should never, ever send your presentation before-hand or print them out and pass them around at or before the meeting.  They’re simply not designed for that (or shouldn’t be).


So, lets envision a world (or at least a sales meeting) where you don’t have PowerPoint.  What happens?  I’ll tell you.  People are a little surprised at first (but not negatively so).  You may fear  that without a PowerPoint deck, customers may believe that you’re not prepared for the meeting.  That you haven’t done your homework.  As it turns out, this is usually not true.   Customers decide whether or not they want to listen based on what you have to say and the value you bring to the meeting – not if you just happen to have a set of slides.  They have no idea who created the slides anyway. 


Without PowerPoint, you can actually position yourself as something other than “just another sales person”.  In fact, at the beginning of most of my sales pitches, I would introduce myself as a technical guy, and not a sales guy.  (This had the added value of being true).  Just on this point alone, customers tend to let their guard down a bit and open up.


Without PowerPoint, you’re setting the stage to have a conversation.  You can ask questions.  You can make forward progress.  You can focus on areas that are of actual interest (instead of just blindly working through all the slides in your 20-slide deck).  Magical things happen when you have a conversation with a customer.  Customers tell you things.  Useful things.  If they believe that you’re listening and actually capable of actually helping them, lots of things happen.  In the best meetings, you’ll feel like you’re jointly collaborating to solve a problem.  The sale becomes incidental.  Though I’ve never been to formal sales training (I’m a programmer), I have sold millions of dollars of software this way.  It works.


And, lest you think that presentations without PowerPoint can only be done in small groups or for short meetings, you should know that I’ve presented to somewhat larger groups (in excess of a hundred people) on a big stage, with a pretty complicated topic, for up to two hours.  I’ve done this several times, and the audience feedback has been positive each time.


So, here’s my idea for you:  Just once, take a chance and walk into a meeting with lots of ideas – but no PowerPoint presentation.  Set the stage for a conversation.  Let the customer talk.  Listen intently.  See how it feels.  See where it leads.  Who knows, you might just be able to break the habit.  Even if you go back, at least you’ll do it with a better recognition of why you’re using PowerPoint.  And, remember that I’m not advocating eliminating PowerPoint from your toolbox completely (it certainly has its place), but figure out when you think it helps, and when it doesn’t.  Just be a little thoughtful about it.


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