What is the purpose of Powerpoint? You might be surprised how many people ask that. Once you reach a certain stage in your career, you can expect to use it a lot. But there are definitely right and wrong ways to use it.
What made Powerpoint popular?
I really think Powerpoint’s rise started around 1992, when Ross Perot ran for president. Ross Perot would go on TV with slickly-printed color charts, and he’d hold up a chart that supported whatever point he was trying to make. And with his other hand, he pointed at things on the chart with a metal stick.
By today’s standards, it was low-tech. But someone put these charts together on a computer and printed them out for him. It was all computer-generated. We just didn’t have really good ways in 1992 for him to present the charts via computer on television. The printouts would work anywhere.
Perot’s pitch didn’t win him the election, but received almost 19 percent of the vote, an impressive number for a third-party candidate in the United States. He was a spoiler in the election, but his influence transcended politics. Within a couple of years, it seems like everyone was using Powerpoint, or some competing product that produced computer-generated business graphics. And misusing it.
Why Microsoft Powerpoint won
Microsoft bought Powerpoint in 1987, which is an example of a time Microsoft purchased a technology and it thrived. Arguably there were better products available, like Harvard Graphics or even Scala, which only ran on Amiga computers. But Powerpoint integrated tightly with Excel. Having the ability to enter data into Excel, visualize it, and drop it right into a presentation easily made it a killer app.
The combination of Excel, Powerpoint and Windows proved to be symbiotic. But critically, Microsoft released both products on the Macintosh too.
Scott McNealy’s Powerpoint ban
What is the purpose of Powerpoint? Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, asked that question and then famously banned Powerpoint at his company. He didn’t like Microsoft, but he also saw people misusing it. He replaced it with overhead projectors, acetate sheets, and dry-erase markers, the way my old economics professor Walter Johnson used to lecture. When Walter Johnson wanted to drive a point home, he’d write it on the overhead, along with a diagram. And if you were smart, you copied down that diagram into your notes, along with anything else he wrote on that overhead.
But Walter Johnson probably only wrote down or drew 10 percent of what he said in that lecture on the overhead.
My Security+ instructor called part of our class “Death by Powerpoint.” Death by Powerpoint is an instructor reading slides to you out loud for an hour or more. People like Scott McNealy ban the product when they see people using it that way. When you’re trying to cram for a certification test it can be hard to avoid it, but in business presentations, it’s ineffective.
Ross Perot’s charts were effective because almost anyone could understand them, and he didn’t read to you. He pointed at them a lot, but they were only part of the show.
What is the purpose of Powerpoint?
A good rule of thumb is to never read your slides to your audience. If your slides are going to be mostly text, make them like an outline, with your main points in as large of a font as possible, and supporting points underneath. If you have to drop below a 14-point font, your slides are too wordy.
One of the most effective presentations I give is a single slide every month. It’s mostly a collection of numbers and if we add much more, it’s going to look like the back of a baseball card. But the statistics we collect let us easily compare several things and tell pretty quickly where our strengths and weaknesses are, and if we’re getting better or worse.