Wednesday, April 28, 2010

If PowerPoint caused the war, Excel caused the financial crisis

The big buzz in the presentation community yesterday was the front page article in the New York Times that referred to PowerPoint as “the enemy” and trotted out the familiar line that “PowerPoint makes us stupid”. Could this be tomorrow’s front page story?

Excel caused the financial crisis
Government officials today announced today that Excel, the spreadsheet program from Microsoft, was the cause of the recent worldwide financial crisis. “If you look at Excel, it forces you into cells, separate boxes that don’t recognize the interconnectedness of the factors”, said one official. The report outlined how financial professionals used Excel to make complex spreadsheets that analyzed various transactions and financial instruments. The authors concluded that the software forces you to create complex formulas that few understand or can explain. They dismissed the argument that Excel is just a tool and people who use it poorly or don’t understand complex formulas were really at fault. “The software should know better. The user is never at fault”, the study states. Academics have now called for a ban on Excel, urging the use of an abacus instead.

It is interesting that when we use the familiar logic of blaming the software for anything other than PowerPoint, the critics cry out that, oh no, it doesn’t apply to word processing or spreadsheets. Interesting logic. It is easy to trot out the familiar “Death by PowerPoint” argument, and that is what the media usually does. I guess criticism sells newspapers better than positive stories.

So I want to take the more challenging route and talk about some positive lessons presenters can learn from the visual that the article used as an illustration of a poor slide.

First, it is at least a visual and not an endless series of bullet points. Many presentations would be more effective if the presenter used diagrams, graphs, photos or other visuals to illustrate their ideas instead of endless slides full of bullet points.

Second, it is likely an overview slide that is shown to give context of what the presenter will talk about next. By giving an audience context first, we enable them to put the rest of what we say into a framework that makes it easier to understand. Anything we can do to communicate our message more effectively is a good thing.

Third, the diagram uses colors to organize the different groups of information: black for Coalition, Light Blue for government, Dark Blue for ANSF, and so on. Using colors or shapes to group like items or ideas aids the audience in understanding the information better. Presenters could apply this idea to many lists or visuals to better organize the information for the audience.

Fourth, the diagram uses different font sizes to indicate the major items and the minor items under each grouping. Varying text size is another technique used to indicate importance to an audience. When you are making a distinction between items in a hierarchy, text size is a useful indicator.

Finally, the diagram uses a sans-serif font. Research shows that sans-serif fonts are easier to read than serif fonts when projected, so at least the presenter is using a font that is going to be easier to see.

Does the visual have aspects that could be improved? Of course it does. I don’t think you would ever be able to find a slide that everyone would agree could not be improved in some way. Let’s stop looking for the worst in everything we see and look for the positive lessons that we can use in our presentations.


Blogger DSchultz said...

Great post. I agree that all the tools we have need to be used correctly. I remember a company that almost had to restate financial results because of a bust in an Excel spreadsheet someone created with tons of macros, formulas, etc. Something that should have been done in an ERP system was created by some enterprising accountant who knew a little about Excel.

8:47 AM  
Blogger Richard I. Garber said...

Excellent. I took it one step further here:
and suggested that MS Word caused those excruciatingly long warning labels that cover the side rails on ladders.

4:06 PM  

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