The "Microsoft Method" of presentations
November 20, 2005
Microsoft did not invent PowerPoint. That honor goes to a small company called Forethought, which released PowerPoint for the Mac in 1987. The company was then purchased by Microsoft and the Windows version of PowerPoint eventually hit the market in 1990...and the world hasn't been the same since.
But did Microsoft invent the wordy, bulletpoint-ridden PowerPoint slide approach, the approach ridiculed by Edward Tufte and so many others? I don't have the answer to that, but judging from the presentation visuals (slides) used by high-profile Microsoft executives, the company is certainly perpetuating this approach, an approach we'll call the "Microsoft Method."
Examples of the "Microsoft Method" of presentations
You can find a plethora of the actual PowerPoint files used in many Microsoft presentations, including those by CEO, Steve Ballmer and Chairman, Bill Gates. The company also provides many video streams to past presentations, often including written transcripts.
On November 7, Steve Ballmer kicked off the "Ready Launch Tour." The audience for this presentation and others on the tour consist mainly of developers and database administrators. The keynote presentation was at a high-level and not overly technical. The presentation was more of an opportunity for the CEO to show his leadership, vision, and what it all means. I don't have any problems with the content of Steve Ballmer's keynote (that's not the focus of this blog anyway). My focus here is only on the slides he chose to use to support his messages. Below I show a few slides from Steve Ballmer's keynote (you can download his PPT file here). But first, allow me to introduce another concept from the Zen aesthetic we can refer to when examining these visuals and our own visuals.
Shibumi is a principle that can be applied to many aspects of life. Concerning visual communication and graphic design, shibumi represents elegant simplicity and articulate brevity, an understated elegance. In Wabi-Sabi Style, authors James and Sandra Crowley comment on the Japanese deep appreciation of beauty:
Their (Japanese) conceptualization relegates elaborate ornamentation and vivid color usage to the bottom of the taste levels...excess requires no real thought or creativity. The highest level of taste moves beyond the usage of brilliant colors and heavy ornamentation to a simple and subdued refinement that is the beauty of shibumi, which represents the ultimate in good taste through conscious reserve. This is the original "less is more" concept. Less color — subdued and elegant usage of color, less clutter...
— Wabi Sabi Style
I do not suggest you judge a presentation visual the same way you do a work of art, of course. But understanding the essence of shibumi can have practical applications in your creative work. And I believe presentations are best viewed as creative endeavors — all of it — preparation, design, and delivery.
Examples from Steve Ballmer's Nov 7 Keynote
Above left: Saying thank you is a wonderful, gracious thing to do, especially at the beginning. If you use a visual for this, a simple "Thank You" without the noise of a busy template, catch phrase (Ready), and three different logos would be better. I like the background color for this visual, but it doesn't fit with the bulk of the slides which have a familiar blue background. Above right: Suddenly a blue background. A lot of images to convey a simple point. The images of people in the bubbles are labeled "People"... in case we weren't sure those were images of people?
Above left: It would be better if Steve had broken this up into three slides with declarative titles for each, less colors and fewer bullets. Above right: I get it, but a simpler, more elegant visual was surely possible.
Above left: Many colors. Gradients. 3-D effects. Small text. When you are one of the most powerful business figures in the world, it's better if your presentation visuals do not resemble a cereal box.
Above left: More 3-D graphics, gradients, colors. Above right: Nothing closes big quite like a bulleted list on a "Summary" slide.
It all matters
You might say, "So the PowerPoints aren't great? So what? Content is what matters." Content does matter a very great deal. Great content is essential. But my point is: It all matters.
Microsoft says the sky's the limit for us consumers. Work can be creative. We can help. I want to believe them. Really I do. Yet, when given the opportunity to show how one of their most visible products can actually be used practically and harmoniously to help their own speakers present important ideas, they revert back to PowerPoint-as-usual. Uninspiring...and typical.
A Flash pitch on the Microsoft "your potential" website says "we stand in awe of your potential." Their whole campaign evolves around this one message: “Your potential. Our passion.” And templates, auto-content wizards and "paper-clip guy" are suppose to help people be more creative?
What must it be like inside the Redmond campus? If top management is implying that this is how best to present, then what incentive do regular workers have for being different, creative...and more effective? But surely not all the people at Microsoft, a company which attracts great minds from across the planet, agree with the typical "death-by-PPT" approach?
Microsoft has smart, creative employees who get it
I think it's very cool that Microsoft allows employees to blog on the company. That's smart. One new MS employee, Prof Elizabeth Lane Lawley, currently working in Redmond on sabbatical from RIT comments today on Microsoft's love affair with the PPT deck in her post called The Culture of The Deck:
"There are many things I’ve been delighted and impressed by during the nearly five months I’ve now spent at Microsoft. However, there have also been a few things that I’ve found extraordinarily disheartening. One of the latter has been the organizational dependence on “the deck” (that is, PowerPoint files) as the standard mechanism for conveying nearly all information."
— Elizabeth Lane Lawley
The professor goes on to say that the Presentation Zen site, Beyond Bullet Points and Tufte's The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint should be required reading for employees. Right on, Elizabeth!
Here's hoping a new way of presenting will one day make it up to the top levels of Microsoft management.