Thursday, February 18, 2010

For heaven's sake, avoid Slideuments! Here's how...

If you've worked for half as long as me I'm sure you would have already noticed the incredible importance Powerpoint seems to assume in our corporate lives. I'm also sure that you've received dozens of .PPT reports, agendas, project charters and documents in your working life. So much so, that it doesn't even seem wrong anymore! Let's take a step back -- what kind of a tool is Powerpoint again? A presentation tool. And why are we using a presentation tool to create awful documents? In today's post I want to address the practice of slideumentation, while keeping in mind people's motivation when creating such artifacts. A few clarifications:
  • Have I ever created a slideument? YES many times
  • Do I work with people who create slideuments? YES
  • Are people who create slideuments stupid? ABSOLUTELY NOT. On the contrary they're the most intelligent people you'll meet
  • Does ThoughtWorks have slideuments? YES, we're not perfect, are we?
  • Does this blogpost represent a ThoughtWorks viewpoint? NO, these views are mine and mine alone!
I hope that the FAQ ensures I don't lose any friends for writing this blogpost. With that said, lets proceed.

Why Slideumentation is just wrong!

A couple of days back I chanced upon this video. It's a fairly hilarious take on how to avoid slideumentation. Garrey Reynolds of Presentation Zen fame has said enough about why slideumentation is just bad, but let me give you my reasons of what I consider slideumentation and what I dislike about them.

"Slideuments are documents we create in a presentation tool. Slideuments are often created for a dual purpose -- to share over electronic media and to present in front of an audience. Often, we create slideuments only because it's apparently easier to create documents using slideware. In such cases, we don't even present the slideument. We only send it across over email or put it up on slideshare or discuss it at a table with our bosses."

I'm not going to define slideuments further -- I'm sure you get the idea. But as you may have noticed from my definition, we end up creating slideuments for two reasons:
  1. We have slides that we need to present and also share with people who may miss the actual presentation
  2. We wan't to quickly create a 'visually interesting' document using an easy to use interface.
Don't worry, very very smart people create slideuments. Hillary Clinton's one of them. So let me first tell you why slideuments are a bad thing in my opinion:
  • If your reason is #1 (above), then remember that if your slides can stand without you, your talk is kinda redundant. You might as well save people some time by sending them an email, writing a nice document (I'll come to this in a bit) or by putting up a blog post! Remember that your audience can read faster than you and if your slide says everything you needed to say, then you're not being much of a presenter, I'm afraid.
  • If your reason is #2, then you have plenty more reasons not to slideument:
    • Slideuments full of bullet points are documents most people will never read. Ask yourself -- how many such documents have you picked up and read from the first slide to the last?
    • Slideumented reports hide complexity. To be very frank, bullet points are nothing but headings for more detailed information. Slideuments generally include only these headings. What about the details? It's complexity that's hidden somewhere at the back of your mind. By creating a slideumented report of your work over weeks and months, you've stopped all of that information from becoming explicit. What would have otherwise been a table of contents is now a many page report. Needless to say, this is a recipe for disaster.
    • Slideuments encourage bad presentations. You might create the slideument only for a reading purpose, but someone is likely to use your slides and create 'Death by Powerpoint'!
    • Slides generally operate at a much lower resolution than documents. Slideumentation creates extremely low quality documents that generally don't portray your professionalism.
So, that's my case against slideuments. If you search for slideuments on Google, I'm pretty sure you'll see a lot more criticism.

3 Parts to a Presentation

So, if we're agreed that slides are slides and that they shouldn't be able to stand without our narrative, then where does all the valuable information go? Garrey Reynolds says that you should consider three parts to your presentation:
  1. The Visuals: These don't have to be slides. You can do presentations in many different ways. If you do use slides however, they should contain simple visuals that explain the topic you're talking about at the time.
  2. Your Notes: Of course, you need to have some notes handy just in case you miss a point here and there. All slideware tools have a notes section built in, where you can enter your notes about the topic on hand.
  3. The Handout: This is where you can add additional detail. So if there's a complex chart add it in here. If you want people to refer your talk after it's over, then provide them a handout. Your handout should be able to live without you. Your slides should not.
I cannot possibly tell you all there's to know about presentations, inside this blogpost. So I strongly recommend that if there's only one book you read about presentations, please read Presentation Zen and start to follow the Presentation Zen blog.

Use a Word-processor for Documents, please

Now for the more difficult part - creating interesting documents. Now you'd think that this is a simple task, but apparently not. People seem to use Powerpoint as page-layout software more than a presentation tool. The pity is that the tool was never designed for the purpose and has some obvious failings when it comes to dealing with large amounts of text.

So first things first -- you can create very interesting documents in just a few clicks using your good old word processor. Take a look at the documents in the image above. Those are templates from Microsoft Word! Now the next time you want to send a Powerpoint file as your 25 page report, think of how your favourite magazine would represent the same information. Then, select a template from your favourite word processor and start filling in the details. After a few rounds of working with templates you should be able to create your own stuff and lend your own brand to your documents. Here are a few tips on what kind of document you should create for some standard purposes.

Type of DocumentSuggestionExamples
Quarterly/ Monthly/ Annual UpdatesTry a newsletterHere are are a couple of examples from Microsoft Word:
ReportsTry Toyota style A3 Reports. Limited to an A3 size sheet, these reports are an example of simplicity in action. The thinking behind A3 reports is:

"If you can't express it in one page, then it's perhaps not worth expressing."

Obviously this means two things:
  • You need to put in serious thought to simplify your report. I mean simple - not simplistic.
  • If your report is simple and visible on a single page, then it'll perhaps be much easier to read for the people who eventually see it.
Here's example template. Contact me for specific examples.
AgendasIf you're sending out an Agenda for a meeting, perhaps a simple one page document will suffice, but if you're keen on trying something fancy, then try the events template from your word processor.
Here's an example from Microsoft Word.
Project Plans/ ChartersPlease, please, please don't pass around project plans in Powerpoint.
  • Its tough to keep track of changes and at some point somebody will have an out of date document;
  • There's always hidden complexity that you're bound to overlook
Instead, try a project wiki. When you have to present reports, try the A3 format. When you have to make a presentation, make a presentation with simple visuals. When you need more detail, keep referring back to your project Wiki.
There are quite a few wikis available on the big broad internet:
  • Mediawiki is the wiki that powers the internet
  • TWiki is a popular wiki that satisfies a number of enterprise use-cases
  • Wikispaces allows you to create a free wiki without the nightmare of hosting and maintainence.
  • Confluence is my favourite wiki and is a full fledged enterprise knowledge sharing tool.
Announcements/ EventsLast but not the least, if you're making announcements or creating a slideument to describe an event, please try a brochure. They're professional, easy to create and extremely good looking.
Here's an example from Microsoft Word.

As you might have guessed by now, I'm a sucker for good presentations and I just can't stand the misuse of good presentation tools! I hope my post today was helpful to you in some way. Please let me know what you think, by adding your thoughts to the comments section of this post. I understand this is a controversial topic, and I'm perhaps sticking my neck out for trouble, but I just can't help expressing myself on this topic.


Brain said...

Excellent write up. Thanks so much for bringing attention to this. It is definitely a large problem in education when teachers use slideuments for their lecture notes or even to replace note taking by the students!

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