Is it a trap? Is PowerPoint a terrible decision making tool?

Probably! In defence of writing memos.

I remember thinking: imagine all the possibilities! It happened somewhere in 2013 in east Berlin, our professor showing us different tricks, like a progress bar inside a presentation. And the 16:9 format, wow.

This was five years before my colleague, not really a fan of making slides, left the company for a smaller one. He later explained that when they saw his PPT for the first time he felt like Michael Jordan. Which tool can turn you into a star of a German Mittelstand? Only PowerPoint.

If he was not really a fan, I was, almost until the end. I was looking forward to do slides, because I got the opportunity to present an idea, a plan, a process, create something from scratch. Play with titles, pull objects from my own templates, use all those consultants tricks. Repair master. Imagine all the possibilities!

The concept of presentation likely started with the overhead projector, do you remember? PowerPoint, 34 years old tool of storytellers, made production and distribution easier. Everyone who ever worked with a computer probably used it at least once; even anti-tech grandmas and grandpas are exposed to it in places where they meet. You cannot escape it. Alternatives are variations on a theme.

Presentations will be anywhere between amazing and terrible. You can do a Steve Jobs and have photos with a word or three on it, or you can lose your audience with tiny text and ugly animations. It is almost as easy as Word and easier than Excel. No wonder companies embraced it.

But it can also be a recipe for disaster, especially if PPT is a decision-making tool in an organisation with a fair amount of good presenters. There we have it, room for improvement!

Powerpoint is great to engage your audience.

In companies older than 20 years you cannot survive without a slide deck unless your job is operational. Larger meetings without slides are endangered species. Sometimes there is a workshop, and the moderators will call their slides flip charts, because they do not do slides, right? Good corporate culture dictates that meeting organiser (or their sidekick) puts together a few slides, presents and then facilitates a discussion.

Could it be that we cannot listen to anyone without a deck? We like to bring slides, look at them and have them. "Will you share the PPT afterwards?" Presenters feel prepared, confident and supported by their beamer. It feels impossible to explain something complex just by talking. Almost as if a chef would only explain a complicated recipe once.

Great presentations can produce applauses, even standing ovations and have probably made a lot of people and organisations successful.

They are an excellent tool for a presenter to engage the audience that:

  1. wants to hear about an implemented concept, process, research, a team, a company or similar,

  2. wants an update on a topic that everyone understands well or wants to learn about,

  3. wants to buy an idea or a product.

Slides will be a great anchor and a reference for both parties. Luckiest presenters will recycle their slides over and over again. Consultants will even charge for recycling.

But slides can mean a disaster for decision-making. A trap!

Slides in a wrong format can be a terrible trap for decision-making, because:

  1. they carry inter-company politics well (=content censoring),

  2. they allow for a lot of high-level crap in a form of sketches, timelines, big sentences, photos and over-simplification,

  3. they enable a great presenter to sell a pile of shit as something great.

Good slides sell. And when you are deciding you probably should not be buying.

The main problem of good slides is that they create an uneven situation: presenter and his buddies will know more than others deciding; information will not be balanced. They will not be on the same page.

Yet, so many decisions are made based on slides. Probably because we are lazy and look for shortcuts: it is much easier to create and process high level information. No need for the uncomfortable details, move on, we tackle it later.

High-level works for everyone. For bosses because they are busy; for presenters because it is easier to produce high-level messages. High-level is the name of the game.

No problem if the company is a money printing machine. But what if the top guys will be constantly deciding on high-level… crap?

In the worst case this means death by a thousand cuts because of persistent information noise. Decisions will be bought and not based on factual analysis. And the average quality of decisions will decline. Think Chinese telephone, but with real world impact:

Alternatively, all of it could get cancelled. So a lot of effort for nothing. A fitting Dilbert intermezzo:

Well, smartass ... what is the alternative?

Probably the only decision-making alternative is to write memos. Like him or hate him, but here is Jeff Bezos (2017 letter to shareholders):

We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.” /../

The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two.

Writing exposes weakness in your arguments and forces you to focus. It asks: do you really understand? If you want other people to understand you, you need to first understand yourself.

For example:

After you understood yourself, send your text to colleagues. They will have questions and comments. Back and forth can be uncomfortable; you will hear complaints and suggestions for a better tool or method. It will be painful, but at the end you will have a common understanding of a complex topic, a straight way forward. At least until the decision board where new questions might arise.

Ok, it is now decision time: everyone reads your text. This means they will immediately be on the same page with you and you can now all discuss. Decisions will logically be of better quality, because weak arguments are much harder to mask on several pages of written text.

Now compare this to a slide deck:

Presenter will present, supported by high-level deck. Two audience members will immediately turn off and go places. “XY” will jump and ask questions on the slide #3 that will be explained later (slide #7). “ZY” will text with his wife about the dinner, and the rest will probably listen. Discussion intensity will correlate with the amount of shit currently hitting the fan. If the topic is uncomfortable, there will be some hard exchanges but ...

... in most of the cases it will be a smooth sailing for the presenter and his agenda. Because the information is unevenly distributed, people will talk but not really discuss. There you go, a solid base for a bad decision.

As former Amazon big boss Bill Carr explains, promoting his co-authored book Working Backwards, Amazon Web Services is a result of 18 months of thinking and writing:

Take AWS. It reached $10 billion in revenue in less than four years. But what's remarkable is that they didn't get there by forming a team, writing a lot of code, and then testing and iterating. In fact, it took more than 18 months before the engineers actually started to write code. Instead, they spent that time thinking deeply about the customers they were trying to serve and forming a clear vision for what AWS should be.

You can test it by yourself by writing a memo about your idea or a project.

It won’t be easy because we all prefer to look at high-level stuff with pictures. We like to be served easy-to-understand things, executive summaries. On top, it takes time to write, to read, to understand, to comment and finally to consolidate all those comments. This is why we rarely write; it is slow and messy. But everything good has a hard and a messy phase.

I cannot judge know how it really is at Amazon, but they certainly did many things right. After my own experiments I believe the “memo” approach makes sense.

Try this: when someone comes to you with questions ask them to write them down if possible. If they do not come back, they either found their answer or they realised they do not really know what to ask.

In sum: writing will improve your decisions!

We need good decisions everywhere: corporates, NGOs, hospitals, kitchen renovations, privately about a move, or if we should start our own coffee shop. Not everything requires a memo. But writing about important things will give you and your partners new perspectives, a better mutual understanding and better results. Even a much faster failure.

Writing increases your odds for success. Amazon had their failures written down, and there surely are many examples of amazing PowerPoints as a basis for fantastic decision making. But hey: were they more handouts with a lot of text or real high-level presentations?

Thanks for reading. I would be happy if you share it with someone who would find it interesting. You can also follow me on Twitter. Help me with some feedback as well  🙇🏻