I grew up with PowerPoint. I started in the world of software and technology, specifically software for Enterprise, back in 1999. In this world, you had to have MS Office. I was immediately drawn to PowerPoint. There was a time where PowerPoint was fine. It was only special events or milestone meetings that would require a slide deck, and wheeling out the 50lb projector.
As my career evolved, PowerPoint became a niche way of communicating, reserved for those with a knack for presentations. It eventually devolved, especially now as we navigate COVID and remote work, into the primary method of knowledge transfer, even if it is an inferior tool for the job. At least this was the case at my previous company, and likely in many more.
I've left the enterprise world and landed myself at a tiny startup where PowerPoint isn't a skill they were looking for. This post is nothing more than a story of how PowerPoint drove me away from a steady product career with good pay, healthcare, bonuses and stock options at a company that will surely have a multi-billion dollar exit.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t like presenting. I fucking love it. And I love visual tools to anchor a presentation, keep it on track, and help transition between phases. My deck game is strong. I’ve had presentations that reached legendary status, where long time colleagues would bring it up frequently, ‘Remember that presentation from 4 years ago?’ I felt pride. I had a minimalist aesthetic with infographic style metrics, that were easy to follow, easy to read and compelling.
I might not even hate PowerPoint at it’s core, I just couldn’t stand where it brought our organization.
Maybe it was my fault. Maybe it was that legendary deck from 4 years ago that put people in a PowerPoint psychosis. Perhaps it would be this next meeting where they could unseat me from my PPTX throne. A rather gradual meeting evolution happened over the span of months, where increasingly it felt like you were being fired at by the PowerPoint cannon from all directions.
Even the most trivial check-in had a slide deck. There was this weight that followed you around. Who’s meeting is this? Who is responsible for the deck? Is it my meeting? I don’t think so but I’ll prepare a deck anyway.
On multiple occasions, I was in an a multi-department meeting, and realized that all other department leads had decks. I hadn’t initially thought it was required for a 15 minute check-in. Now, some bizarre one-of-us guilt had me creating a deck WHILE THE MEETING IS ONGOING! Absolute. Fucking. Nonsense.
And it was a race to the bottom as far as presentation quality, and applicable use-cases for PowerPoint.
Perhaps this was the most damaging to our corporate knowledge management. As PowerPoint became more and more pervasive, a meeting could only exist so long as a slide deck existed. The deck itself started to become the place where all questions, data, tasks and decisions were stored. Slide-show mode was rarely used, as a meeting was often oriented around making edits to slides in real-time with all attendees watching.
Suddenly, a large portion of our company knowledge-base became a series of .pptx files stored on Confluence. It wasn’t uncommon to have 50+ slides in a deck. If you couldn’t make the meeting, don’t worry! Someone will send you the 250MB deck, which will be a yard sale of watermarked stock images, a requisite 'easy button' image, changing bullet and font styles, bad copy/paste, pages of links to other decks, out-of-context data and embedded Excel files.
People say this. People say it all the time. They’re making light of the fact that their shit is so jacked on screen, that it makes you feel defective, because your brain can't comprehend what it's seeing. Like when the eye doctor starts to move you down the eye chart and you realize that it’s just an indecipherable blur.
This is where I start to drift off. Let me check my email, my todo list, anything to not stare directly at the slide.
I once had someone embed an Excel sheet into a slide that went up to column AB (that’s 28 columns) with 25 or so rows. He said ‘I know this slide is an eye chart, so it’s hard to read, but A1 says Metric. B1 says Department. C1 says...’ And he just kept going, reading the cells.
I thought we’d peaked, right there in that moment. There would finally be a reckoning. Things would get better after this. But someone out there, from inside the Zoom blackhole, was watching intently, possibly using an assistive screen reader. They piped up ‘In cell P12, it says 120,350, but it should actually be 130,250!’
So now, we stop everything. This can’t be. The presenter can’t see the issue of course, so we’d better hand over mouse-control to Mr. P12 so he can double-click on the embedded object and let us all watch him live-fucking-edit this Excel, inside of PowerPoint, inside of Zoom plus 50 more layers of abstraction.
This was it. We had hit peak PowerPoint. Or so I'd thought.
PowerPoint is not a collaboration tool. Sure you can add comments, and if you're lucky you can figure out how to review revisions, but when you involve more than a few collaborators, things get dicey.
At my previous company, there were certain quarterly meetings that required all departments to report out to the executive team. Inevitably we'd end up with 25 people creating their own acid-laced Napoleon's March to convey their department's status and contribution. On top of this, people are drawing color coded shapes to put on each slide to keep track of the status of the slide design process.
Before long, Microsoft's cloud sync would start failing for people and now local versions are being emailed around and someone (me) would be trying to decipher what's new and combine them, like a code merge without a diff.
I tried to change this process multiple times, to pull the data collection and story boarding process out of PowerPoint and into Trello, then lean on simple presentation tools like beautiful.ai to handle the presentation layer. However, because a PowerPoint file was a requirement as a document of record, and because all collaborators wouldn't comply with the new format, it fell on me to take everyone's 1500 word thesis and translate into a compelling set of slides. It was too much.
Everything you've read so far was frustrating, and hurt the company in many ways. It was often debilitating and demoralizing. But being tasked to use PowerPoint to track real-time project status was the point where I knew I needed to move on. As a product manager who is constantly juggling roadmaps, and having used dozens of killer Kanban tools, it hurt somewhere deep in the backlog of my soul to be using PowerPoint in this way.
Picture a slide with shapes as backgrounds, hand crafted iconography composed of a collection of ungrouped shapes, rectangular shapes as Kanban cards and text boxes on top of each card. Every thing was an ungrouped object, and each click & drag moved an unexpected object. If you spent a couple hours, you could clean it up so it was more manageable, only for corporate to issue a new flavor of the same template with a ‘’use this one” mandate, and the vicious cycle would continue.
When I should have been spending time in Jira, Pendo, Figma or Miro, I was spending it in PowerPoint. Once presented, my slide deck artifacts were filed away, to never be opened again. All that effort, for such short term value. The corporate benefit per hour worked on PowerPoint was extremely low, compared to other areas that generated a work product.
I’ve since moved on, with the intention of getting away from PowerPoint as a daily-use tool. I haven’t even installed Microsoft Office since starting at the new company. It’s liberating. That installation was one of the very first punishments of getting a new laptop that I experienced since Office 97. To know that I might be able to squeak by for a few years, perhaps the rest of my career, without installing PowerPoint, I’m downright giddy.