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Microsoft's CEO wants ET method of presentation, not PowerPoint

From an interview of Steven A. Ballmer, chief executive of Microsoft, in The New York Times, May 16, 2009: Audio Player - HTML5 - White

Q. What's it like to be in a meeting run by Steve Ballmer?

A. "I've changed that, really in the last couple years. The mode of Microsoft meetings used to be: You come with something we haven't seen in a slide deck or presentation. You deliver the presentation. You probably take what I will call "the long and winding road." You take the listener through your path of discovery and exploration, and you arrive at a conclusion."

"That's kind of the way I used to like to do it, and the way Bill [Gates] used to kind of like to do it. And it seemed like the best way to do it, because if you went to the conclusion first, you'd get: "What about this? Have you thought about this?" So people naturally tried to tell you all the things that supported the decision, and then tell you the decision."

"I decided that's not what I want to do anymore. I don't think it's productive. I don't think it's efficient. I get impatient. So most meetings nowadays, you send me the materials and I read them in advance. And I can come in and say: "I've got the following four questions. Please don't present the deck." That lets us go, whether they've organized it that way or not, to the recommendation. And if I have questions about the long and winding road and the data and the supporting evidence, I can ask them. But it gives us greater focus."

-- Edward Tufte

If he wants them to send the materials in advance so he can read ahead, aren't they most likely making PP files crammed full of text?

-- Erik (email)

One question this begs is are the materials they are sending him in advance a Powerpoint deck?

-- Sam Perry (email)

I would like to better understand what one should do when in the opposite situation than the one presented in the article. That is, what if the person to whom you are presenting *wants* to see the deck, and has previously insisted that your information be formatted into those "g*damn little bullets"?

I work for a large systems engineering organization that does a lot of work for the federal government, including the DoD. Needless to say, the use of PP is widespread, and I have yet to encounter an example of someone using any other method. I have found that Visio is a much better tool for presenting information, and have found that eliminating the unnecessary things usually associated with PP makes for a much cleaner slide, with more room for the actual information. However, everyone still expects to see those bulleted lists. Has anyone out there in a similar situation had any success in countering this?

-- Pat Howard (email)

I found this recently and thought it was an interesting use of data:

From Bnet.com:

Why Schering-Plough's Nasonex Bee Is to Blame for FDA's New Drug Ad Rules By Jim Edwards | May 27th, 2009 @ 8:53 am

The FDA's new proposed guidelines on drug advertising read like a full-employment act for medical copywriters and graphic designers: they control font size, white space, context, contrast, placement, background and the use of sections in ads.

Overall, they require companies to produce materials that are more comprehensible to the "reasonable consumer;" that are more overt about risks; and warn that the FDA will judge them by their "net impression" "as a whole," not simply whether they are technically accurate.

One person who will smile when reading the new guidelines is Ruth Day of Duke University. Back in 2005, she presented to the FDA a study showing that when drug ads listed benefits, the images on the screen matched the voiceover and moved slowly. But when side effects were listed, the images often became mis-matched to the voiceover and moved much faster or were more distracting. Day's infamous example was of Schering-Plough's Nasonex ads, featuring a talking bee voiced by Antonio Banderas. Day counted the wing-flaps of the bee and found they fluttered faster during side effect information that during benefit information. The result was that viewers found it more difficult to remember the side effects than the benefits. You can see Day's original presentation here.

Day's ideas seem to have been written wholesale into the new guidelines. The FDA gives an example:

... [an] audio presentation is accompanied by quick scene changes showing comforting visual images of patients benefiting from the drug. It is also accompanied by loud, upbeat music. In this case, the audio disclosure may not adequately communicate risks because of the accompanying discordant visuals and distracting music.

Those of you who pay attention to pharma blogs may remember that in 2007 I suggested that Day's study should be No. 1 on a list of FDA reforms for drug advertising. Others ridiculed this idea, including Pharma Marketing Blog's John Mack, who produced this graphic of the bee and Ruth Day.

Lo and behold, four years later, the Day thesis is No. 1 in FDA's examples of misleading advertising, right there on page 5 of the "Policy Overview" section.

Mighty regs from little Powerpoints grow ...


Edwards, J. (27 May, 2009). Why Schering-Plough's Nasonex bee is to blame for FDA's new drug ad rules. Bnet.com. Retrieved 01Jun09 from: http://industry.bnet.com/pharma/10002357/why-schering-ploughs-nasonex-bee-is-to-blame-for-fdas-new-drug-ad-rules/

-- B.L. (email)

Hmmm. Call me kooky, but how does this have anything to do with ET's principles of good information design? All Ballmer discussed here is the order in which he wants the information presented, not its content or method changing.

He didn't say a thing about what tools are used to create the content and how those tools might be influencing the quality of thinking and research behind it.

As far as we know, nothing at all has changed in Ballmer's approach to research / presentation meetings other than: (1) he gets the 'materials' beforehand, and (2) opens them and hits the 'End' button on his keyboard to read the PowerPoint file backward from the end (probably how he reads novels).

-- Darrin Hunter (email)

Darrin: Even if PP is still being used, it's an improvement. One of ET's core arguments is that the user should control the speed of information. This allows them to do so. Powerpoint is just a delivery tool: when you email a PP presentation, it effectively transforms into a highly segmented, highly bulletted Word document.

-- Ty Fuji (email)

I wanted to share with you my dismay at some new slide formatting guidelines that were recently sent to employees at my company on behalf of our CEO (my company is a fairly prominent aerospace firm). It applies to any presentation that is brought in front of him from now on:

- All titles short

- All bullets are one line only

- Less is more - keep slides simple

- Taglines should deliver slide message, not the title

- 10 second rule: You should be able to look at a slide and in 10 seconds, know what it is trying to tell you

-- Sam Perry (email)

Having done 100's of PP the concern is normally: 1). How much detail and content to present supporting conclusions. 2). Your audience: what's their perspective and motivation

In sales 101 it's about building the old feature / benefit scale, throw in some segways, trial closes, feedback via questions and then the close. A PP many times is a graphic form of the face to face sales call. I really like the idea of stating the conclusion - (Prices, what we want you to do, buy, actions to be taken, etc.) up front. Whatever form the presenation takes the objective should be to elicit dialouge, questions and feedback - the ET approach is much more efficient.

-- Thomas O'Malley (email)

See this, about PowerPoint v. battlefield intelligence in Afganistan, in the publication cited below:

"...The format of intelligence products matters...Commanders who think PowerPoint storyboards and color-coded spreadsheets are adequate for describing the Afgan conflict and its complexities have some soul searching to do. Sufficient knowledge will not come from slides with little more text than a comic strip...There are no shortcuts. Microsoft Word, rather than PowerPoint, should be the tool of choice for intelligence professionals in a counterinsurgency..."

P. 23-24 "Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relelvant in Afganistan" Major General Michael T. Flynn, USA; Capitan Matt Pottinger, USMC; Paul D. Batchelor, DIA Published by the Center for a New American Security January 2010

-- John Barry (email)

Here is something related from the Armed Forces Journal: Dumb-dumb bullets: As a decision-making aid, PowerPoint is a poor tool

-- Greg P (email)

In response to Sam Perry's and his manager dilemma, what I've learned to do (at the prominent aerospace company where I work) is to carefully listen to what managers are trying to say, not what they are actually saying, in establishing these requirements. My best guess is that the manager is trying to say that he's sat through too many presentations that took too long, had too many misleading slides, and where a legalistic mentality was applied (nitpicking each bullet on the slide apart) on the typical long and winding road. This was an impediment to information being transferred and communicated effectively during the meeting, and was frustrating to the manager (hence his new rules). However, you could still apply his ideas to your future presentation technique. Let's say instead of presenting with a powerpoint deck, you present with one powerpoint supergraphic. On the supergraphic, you have a short, concise title(1), with a more lengthy subtitle below(4). You use use annotation of your diagram (in a pleasant font with light gray lines) as your "single line" bullets(2), and you design it so that when people look at it, they can understand the general concept in 10 seconds(3,5). Generally speaking, you met his five requirements, and potentially lead a productive meeting, though your interpretation of his hard-and-fast rules were more creative and appropriate than the most literal translation of their meaning. Who knows? Perhaps the manager will realize his mis-communication, and in the future put forth a new set of requirements based on your example.

-- Nathanael Otto (email)

I recently discovered the Corner Office column in the NY Times, and am pleased to see that others advocate getting away from PowerPoint as well (see the last Q/A). As noted in Dr. Tufte's workshop, a printed figure or two can be very helpful.


-- Raga Ramachandran (email)

A suggestion for -- Pat Howard May 28, 2009 --

I also have encountered your problem and will offer the following solution. Keep using Visio. Develop your "slides" in visio, then use some screen capturing tool (I love SnagIT) to take a picture of your visio information. Edit that picture in SnagIT (annotations, callouts, etc.) and paste that image into PowerPoint.

I work as a project manager in the IS space for a very large financial institution and it was the same mentality. "I want to see things this way" I found that giving them a wealth of interesting information that enabled their decision process to be less painful, everyone naturally jumped on the bus. Heck most of them are happy enough that they are in powerpoint and do not even realize that I'm not giving them their typical bullet list of boredom.

I think ET said it in his 1-day seminar I attended in 2005 "If your data is boring, you have the wrong data".


-- Jake (email)

No elaborate "presentation aids" for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), either

This post applies to several similar discussion threads, but it certainly fits here.

It turns out that visual excess doesn’t impress the FAA, either.

I was looking over some FAA documents for a proposal, and ran across this April, 1996 directive: Unnecessarily Elaborate Submittals
Unnecessarily elaborate brochures or other presentations beyond those sufficient to present a complete and effective response to this [offer] are not desired and may be construed as an indication of the offeror’s lack of cost consciousness. Elaborate art work, expensive paper and bindings, and expensive visual and other presentation aids are neither necessary nor wanted.
The “indication of the offeror’s lack of cost consciousness” phrase is priceless.

After reading this frankness from a government agency, I wanted to stand and applaud.

-- Jon Gross (email)

Lucy Kellaway's column in the FT today makes mention of a new political party in Switzerland: the Anti-PowerPoint Party. Its motto: "Finally do something!"

The founder, M. Poehm, claims he has over 100K signatures, the minimum needed to present a referendum question, and seeks to obtain seats in the Swiss National Council at the next election, which will be 23 October 2011.

Hope springs eternal!

-- Claiborne Booker (email)

Could anyone share some 'Tufte-like' 11 x 17 evidence presentations? Seeing some concrete examples of how their arguments are developed, and the formatting of the actual document would address many of my questions. Thanks...

[ET COMMENT: here are some non-fiction web pages that provide superb technical-report formats, usually rich with data: ESPN.COM reports on individual baseball or football games, a typical policy story in NYT or WSJ, the National Weather Service weather.gov local reports, Google News, and, for diagrams, your standard is Google maps. Millions of people everyday use these data-rich nonfiction formats.

For another example, look at Tim Berners Lee's technical report that is the founding document of the web. Now there's a nice model for your reports! Another way to put this: can we bring our presentations up to the quantitative and information intensity of an ESPN.COM report on a baseball game? Widely used excellent nonfiction formats are right in front of you. Ask your IT department to provide these new formats for technical reports and tell them that this will makes them heroes and heroines. For other good prepared formats see the LaTeX formats that scientists use daily, or PLoS. All the formats mentioned, when used properly, will make your meetings 20% shorter. They avoid what Steve Ballmer called "the long and winding road" of decks.

P.S Or you could see two double-page spreads in my books; those formats are available in LaTex]

-- D Patton (email)