PowerPoint is a terrible way to communicate anything important

Slide decks are notoriously bad at sharing real knowledge. Time to rediscover the old-fashioned memo

Illustration of a man giving a powerpoint of himself giving a powerpoint presentation into infinity

(Illustration by Graham Roumieu)

In the midst of the Kosovo war in 1999, intelligence analysts gathered to evaluate possible bombing targets for NATO forces, eventually focusing on a Serbian military equipment factory. This recommendation was soon ensconced in a Power­Point slide. But the template and format used by the CIA analysts was identical to those used by the U.S. military command in Europe. As it passed through the chain of command, the preliminary order was mistaken for an actual order coming from a brigadier-general, and the attack was carried out. Bureaucratic miscommunication became an international incident. To make matters worse, the analysts’ work was faulty, and the selected target was not a military factory at all, but a Chinese Embassy. Two Chinese citizens died, and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing was destroyed in the ensuing protests.

That was not the only time sloppy presentation slides led to catastrophe. The NASA report on the 2003 crash of the Columbia space shuttle indicated engineers had become too reliant on presenting complex information in jumbled slides, making it difficult to assess risks associated with the mission. “It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation,” the report stated.

These incidents only underscore what corporate denizens already know: PowerPoint, and similar presentation tools, is often a lousy way to present information. A 2009 study found students retained 15% more knowledge from a traditional lecture than from a PowerPoint presentation. Moreover, students who read their textbooks but didn’t attend any lecture at all recalled more information than those exposed to presentation slides.

“Human beings can’t read and listen at the same time,” says Eric Bergman, a media skills consultant. “If you have a chart or a photograph that communicates something you can’t communicate over the telephone, then maybe you need it. But if you can communicate it on the phone, then you have to ask, Why does a visual add value?”

Slides make things “easy for the presenter, but difficult for the audience,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in a 2012 interview, after barring them from meetings. LinkedIn also bans presentation decks from its boardrooms. But most corporations are buried in slides. A 2013 survey found 26% of respondents sat through at least one slide show per day, up from 13% in 2007.

“People have shifted from writing memos to using Power­Point decks to communicate,” says Dave Paradi, who co-ordinated the poll. Yet the once-maligned memo requires a depth of analysis often absent from slides. “When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences…it forces a deeper clarity of thinking,” Bezos noted.

Ditching PowerPoint might now be a competitive advantage, says Bergman. “If you want to set yourself apart, it’s actually really easy—be the only one to not use slides.”