Bill Gates and visual complexity
November 04, 2005
"It was one of the most poorly executed events I've seen Microsoft do in years." These were the words industry analyst , Rob Enderle, used to describe Tuesday's presentation by Microsoft executives, including Bill Gates, in an interview with PC World.
According to the PC World article, and various other media reports, the presentation for unveiling Microsoft's new Live Software strategy to the media, held in San Francisco, was one filled with logistical and technical errors, seemed "hurried" to some and ran long over the scheduled time. "It was Ray Ozziea's (CTO) coming out party and it wasn't a good one," Enderle said.
One of the goals of the presentation was to share the company's vision. But early media reports coming from the few people who attended the event have been less than glowing. Now, four days after the event, many in the media (and blogosphere) are still unclear just what exactly is "revolutionary" about Microsoft's new Live strategy and what it all means. If industry pundits don't fully get it, what hope do mere customers and investors have?
But my aim is not to discuss Microsoft's strategy but to focus on this particular presentation.
Rule No. 1: Know your message inside out (and backwards)
Leaders use speaking opportunities to communicate their vision in a crystal clear fashion (otherwise, what's the point of getting on stage?). It appears this recent presentation by Bill Gates, in the end, left things quite unclear, at least in the minds of many who attended the event.
Bill Gates and Steve Jobs
I am not attempting to be glib or sarcastic (really), but perhaps Bill Gates and company should look to Steve Jobs and Apple for more than just technical inspiration. Bill could learn a lot about "presenting different" from observing Jobs' artful presentations. Sure, not everyone will agree with Jobs' observations, conclusions, and projections after his presentations, but at least people are not left scratching their heads in befuddlement. Jobs' presentations generate a lot of positive buzz and always release yet another wave of viral communication about the presentation's content. This happens in part because the contents are easily grasped and remembered by both the media, and regular customers and fans. You can't "spread the word" if you don't get what the word was. With Jobs' public presentations there is both a verbal and visual clarity. This is what great leaders do. Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba, authors of Creating Customer Evangelists make a good observation about Jobs:
"Jobs does just what a leader is supposed to do: Provide a vision of where the company ship is headed and make sure everyone understands it."
Bill Gates is a very smart man. He can surely do better than his last presentation.
Rule No. 2: Remove barriers to effective communication
Aside from appearing not to have a clear message (or at least being guilty of trying to cram too much into a two-hour presentation), it looks like Gates and his staff did what many millions of other PowerPoint users do daily — they used PowerPoint in a way that did not help their message. In fact, their PowerPoint visuals probably hurt their message. If the visuals did not help, then they quite possibly got in the way of Gates making a meaningful, personal connection with the ninety or so people in the room.
To be fair, I was not at the presentation, so it is possible that the presenters did an amazing, inspiring job in spite of their bulletpoints an clip art. But judging from the many previous executive presentations currently available on the Microsoft website, along with the early media reports by those in attendance, it is doubtful.
Design matters, visuals matter...it ALL matters!
Here's the deal: It all matters. If you are going to get up in front of a lot of people and say that the design of your strategy matters, that the design of your integrated software matters, then at the very least the visuals you use — right here and right now, at this moment in time with this particular audience — also need to be the result of incredible design, not hurried decoration.
Let's examine a few of the slides used by Gates in the "Live" presentation Tuesday. To see even more slides, take a look at the many photos on Niall Kennedy's flickr site (brace yourself Beyond Bullet Points fans:
Bill Gates explains the big picture (but can he explain that picture behind him?).
"...this slide really pulls it all together" Bill Gates said of the slide above. You decide. You can see Bill Gates spend 60 seconds explaining this slide on "The Microsoft Platform" as well as observe him go through each bullet point on his other wordy slides on the cnet.com website.
To get a non-biased point of view on the visuals, I asked my friend, Atsuko Ito, a graphic designer who works with some of the worlds top global brands in Japan to comment on these slides. Here's what she said.
"Wow, where to begin? Generally, and from a pure visual point of view, in both of these slides (above) there is (1) too much information in one slide. This is typical in Japan too. But people can't read and listen at the same time, so that is a problem. (2) The Clipart looks cheap. Soulless. (3) The choice of colors are not the best. I’m personally not comfortable with it. Maybe because the colors don’t represent lifestyle or work style so well. It looks very cold. It makes life and work seem so depressing...
How about the slide with the clouds?
"For the 'The Live Era' slide, (1) communication priority is weak. Not sure what he wants to communicate the most. (2) Gradation is overused. Even the text has gradation! Especially when used on text, it makes it hard to read. (3) Overall impression is "clutter." One possible reason is using an image on the background. It is OK to use an image (in this case the cloud image), as long as the images that go on top of it are kept simple. In this case, they aren’t. Actually, the whole Gestalt is bad. It is a little ugly and confusing. Sorry."
There are many more visual problems with the slides as well, problems we have discussed on the site before. Let me just touch on just one more.
Don't rain on my parade
Concerning the "Microsoft 'Live' Platform" slide, it is important to note that not all people will view the use of clouds in a positive light. Just think of the many ways we use "cloud(y)" to convey negative images or feelings in the English vernacular. For example, "Never a cloudy day" is used in many songs to convey love, good times, a bright future and so on. The phrase "...clouds up ahead" implies danger or difficulties in future.
Now it is true that a few fluffy cumulus clouds can represent a fine sunny day and convey other positive associations. But the slide Bill uses has enough cloud formations to make an experienced sailor give the order to batten down the hatches. Bill has some real cumulonimbus-looking clouds underneath his title, a sure sign that bad weather is ahead? There is even "digital rain" being released from one low cloud, showering "experiences" down (and up according to the double arrow) onto other software and "other devices," like an ancient iMac.
It may seem like a small thing, but you have to be careful with the implied messages sometimes hidden within images. This is especially true across cultures.
Slides matter, because it all matters. Well-designed visuals won't save a weak message, but poorly designed visuals will necessarily detract from — or even completely undermine — an otherwise strong verbal message.
Others comment on Gate's presentation
Former Apple employee, Mike Evangelist: Presentation skills 101.
CyberPsych: How to present Microsoft-style: Steve Jobs, you've got nothing to worry about.
Read comments on the "Live" photos on Niall Kennedy's Flickr site, the source for these event photos.
Gates announces Windows Live, Office Live (Cnet.com).
Various Bill Gates presentations on the Microsoft website.
Various Steve Jobs presentations on the Apple site