Why Sharing Slides is Crap

At a recent seminar, I was struck by the number of people wondering, “Will these slides be posted?” Struck because the nature of this presentation was such that, without the presenter, the slides wouldn’t do you much good.

It got me thinking about our constant use of slide-creating software, and I realized there are three things that really bug me about it.

1. Slides don’t tell me what I need to know.
Several weeks ago, I followed a friend’s Twitter link to a presentation on SlideShare. I dutifully watched it, but at several points found myself thinking, “Gee, I wonder what she talked about on this slide.” A big ol’ screenshot of a web site probably provided great fodder for her insightful commentary, but didn’t do me much good as a passive observer. If audio would have been included, it would have been a different story but SlideShare doesn’t include audio. Watching a presentation with no one presenting ends up feeling like listening to one side of a phone conversation: you get the gist, but not the whole story. And entire stretches remain a total mystery.

As my pal @rrazor said, “Slides are often (hopefully?) the most content-poor part of a presentation. SlideShare is just a tease.”

Put another way, if I can get everything I need from your slides alone — why would I bother coming to see you speak? And, if I can’t get everything I need from your slides alone — what’s the point of putting them on SlideShare?

2. I’ve had just about enough of slide culture.
I realize I’m swimming against a cultural tsunami that cannot be stopped, but I really wish we could scale back our use of slides. PowerPoint is the ubiquitous format for communicating everything. And I do mean everything. I recently got an invitation to an event that was — you guessed it — a PowerPoint slide. From what I can tell, the ability for this organization to animate the crap out of every piece of text and embed a soundtrack is what really sold them on this format. A nice, clean PDF simply stating the details of the event pales in comparison.

A colleague sent me a deck of slides that had no business being on slides in the first place; it really warranted several pages of text (like a White Paper). Cramming that amount of information into a set of slides is just silliness: it’s an attempt to bullet-ize information that shouldn’t be communicated in bullets. Thoughts that should be sentences end up as half-sensical phrases and groups of thoughts that should be paragraph end up as dense bulleted lists filling up the slide. Why even try to put that amount of data in a slide?

Something about our ADD/multi-tasking/Twitter-ized lifestyles seems to have made us loathe to communicate information in anything other than small, bite-sized chunks. But, guess what? Not everything can be communicated that way. In 2003, Edward Tufte wrote an article titled PowerPoint is evil. The guy’s got a point.

(He’s also got a longer piece on this topic, which I’d highly recommend, including a fascinating look at some slides from NASA about the space shuttle Columbia.)

3. If we really cared, we’d write it down.
Most of the time, when I hear people ask, “Will this be posted online?” what I think they are saying is, “Do I really need to take notes?” These days, we’re so busy tweeting and live-blogging during presentations that we’re only paying half-attention to the presentation itself. So, we want the slides to remind us of the half that we missed. Maybe I’m being old fashioned, but whatever happened to taking notes? If a presenter says something that you think is really important, WRITE IT DOWN. Is it really that hard?

There is one situation I can think of where I found slide sharing helpful. At an Adaptive Path seminar years ago, they distributed several workbooks. One of which was a printout of the presentation in small-slide format with an area for notes next to each slide. This was actually helpful; while the presenter was talking, I jotted down information related to what he was saying. There was so little data on the slides (compared to the oceans of data coming out of the presenter’s mouth) that the slides alone wouldn’t have been any good. The slides plus my notes were okay, but still not half as good as attending the seminar itself. So maybe that’s what’s bugging me: people mistaking the slides for the presentation. The two are not the same. And if they are, the presentation wasn’t worth whatever you paid to attend.

Am I wrong?
What is with our obsession with sharing slides? Maybe someone who voraciously devours presentations posted by other people can help enlighten me: what am I missing here? I can’t imagine asking Al Gore to send me the slides for his presentation, An Inconvenient Truth. Rather than striving to create slides to post for everyone to see, shouldn’t we strive to create presentations that are so engaging that our audience closes their laptops and listens?

I spend most of my time encouraging people to use technology. This week, I’d like to challenge you to not use PowerPoint (and Mac users — that means no Keynote, either). Let’s see how long we can make it.

[cross-posted at the MIMA blog]