TM&Th blog
Jean-luc Doumont
Don't overdo it (no kidding?)

I have mixed feelings about this Microsoft SlideFest. Certainly,
I salute any initiative that helps presenters create better slides;
today's average slideshow is so awful that every little tip helps.
At the same time, I have my doubts about both the approach
adopted for the SlideFest and the examples of improved slides.
In fact, the whole thing is very much in the spirit of Microsoft,
with many shortcomings so typical of PowerPoint slideshows:
it offers little content, is overly decorated, and is disorganized.


To start with, the “do & don't” section proposes five video clips
(about two minutes each) to learn how to avoid possible pitfalls
by seeing these in pseudohistorical settings. The idea has merit,
and I am myself a firm believer in the learning power of analogy
or even caricature. Unfortunately, the clips are a disappointment.
Each of them presents one simplistic tip, of the type “excessive
and superfluous graphic animations and slide transitions can
distract from your presentation” (no kidding? And, by definition,
if it is excessive or superfluous, then it is best avoided, isn't it?).
The wacky performance is very reminiscent of Microsoft clip art.
Against this garish background, the poor host has a tough time
getting our attention and making his point, however simplistic—
not exactly what you might consider a high signal-to-noise ratio.

Host surrounded by noise

The improved versions of the slides presented in the video clips
are often unconvincing, a comment that holds for the “featured”
slideshows as well. In the “Graph gaffe” video, Microsoft implies
that a graph with two lines is “overly complicated” and makes it
a column chart instead—not exactly an improvement for a slide
meant to reveal an evolution (a “drop in gathering production”).
The chart reveals the meaning of colors with a separate legend,
whereas the original graph more intuitively labeled the two lines
with pictures (words would have been less ambiguous, though).
As a model of good design, the new slide could include a scale
on the chart, eliminate the gradient of color in the background,
and state a message (a so what) as a sentence in the title area.

Overly complicated graph?

Better graph?

As you might have guessed, the examples of slides with bullets
are not exactly better. Typically, the lists shown lack parallelism
in both contents and form. The bullet list below is even implied
to be preferable to a graphical display showing the full data set.
(Oh well… at least, the slide's title conveys a strong message. ;–)

Bullets better than graph?

The “Slide school 101” section of Microsoft's SlideFest is equally
disappointing. It proposes various “examples of what not to do”
(as if the world needs more of those) and offers tips and tricks
as long and disorganized lists of equally disorganized resources.
Some videos offer oversimplified and often indefensible advice
(no more than ten slides, no more than six words per slide, etc.).
Others make creating aesthetically pleasing slides in PowerPoint
look deceptively simple. For example, the “5-Minute Makeover”
proposes changes that would likely take a savvy PowerPoint user
over an hour to get right, and it glosses over the real challenges,
such as finding a suitable picture rather than actually inserting it
in PowerPoint. An inappropriate picture hurts more than it helps;
providing “over 100 000 pictures on” is no panacea.

Overall, one wonders why Microsoft does not improve PowerPoint
instead of (or in addition to) providing the kind of dos and don'ts
found on their SlideFest website. For example, if they insist that
“when selecting effects, simpler is better”, why do they not limit
the effects made available in PowerPoint to a few simple ones?
I agree that the user, not the tool, is responsible for the result
in the end, but better tools certainly contribute to better results.

On a more hopeful note, the SlideFest videos show the audience
taking action against ineffective speakers. Myself, I would plead
for slightly more constructive feedback than clubbing, torching,
or shooting arrows at the speaker, but I believe part of the issue
is that we too easily put up with presentations wasting our time.
As proposed in Entry 18 of this blog, I recommend that we strive
toward zero tolerance for bad presentations. Let's change things!

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