While executives often make use of Powerpoint for strategic and tactical decisionmaking, few of their audience understand its meaning beyond the words on the screen. That failure can be dangerous! In and of itself, Powerpoint is a highly influential artifact.
In ordinary leadership settings, the visual aspects of rhetoric are secondary. Eye contact, natural gestures and erect posture are designed to enhance, not substitute for the verbal message. The smart use of Powerpoint, however, can provide the dominant persuasive message. Thus, it’s fundamental for receivers to have an understanding of Powerpoint subtexts—of what Powerpoint can do to them. Indeed, in business settings Powerpoint can become as iconic as Ronald McDonald, Google’s four-colored graphic and 3M’s red logo.
Most people inherently understand that pictures elicit both negative and positive responses simultaneously. While words on a screen are not as powerful as pictures, they can work more powerfully than normal speech: they can be used efficiently, emotionally and persuasively by carrying strong assumptions to the audience. In short, the Powerpoint is a visual message that can not only support, but even eclipse the influence of the leader’s spoken word.
Elements of visual
Words and pictures in Powerpoint have a grammar of their own. The screen, placed in front of an audience, focuses eyes and brains. When the Powerpoint moves serially from one slide to another, it effectively maintains the audience’s focus. All of us know that focus on our tasks is highly useful to complete said tasks. But focus in Powerpoint also keeps the brain from significant rethinking, questioning and sometimes, disagreeing. As a consultant, I rarely use Powerpoint as my primary value to clients requires them to intensely rethink, question and disagree – if I do not provide that environment, I won’t get full engagement and buy-in to an idea.
We also know that the three basic types of shapes—square (and rectangle), triangle and circle—conjure up different meanings. Use of the rectangular Powerpoint visual emphasizes straightness, honesty and sometimes dullness. Although they aren’t fixed associations, that does not mean that the shapes lack merit. The size, scale and number of these shapes are related to how space is used. Lots of white space has often been associated with luxury, higher class and independence. Check out the white space in, for example, Leo Burnett, Chanel, Malcolm Gladwell and my own website. Better skilled and more experienced users of Powerpoint know the significance of using fewer than a dozen words on a single screen.
Balance and direction are perceptual cues that help us organize a visual. Effective Powerpoint, according to research, masterfully guides the brain from upper left corner of the screen down to the lower right of the screen – in banana-like shape. Finally, color and lighting greatly affect mood as they can heighten or diminish the intensity of the images.
Taken together, Powerpoint performs what we rhetoricians call an enthymemic function in which the audience supplies pieces of the argument, an argument that promises a personal conclusion. Typically, the Powerpoint’s argument is a riff on simple syllogisms such as “success requires action, it’s going to require all of us to act, and so if you want to succeed you’ll get into the action.” These assumptions reveal no actual evidence, thinking or reasoning to drive their conclusions. From the get-go, the Powerpoint falsely documents reality for no other reason than the mindless guarantee of a piece of technology. In short, a mere tool of light, electronic engineering, plastic, software and a projection screen with black letters on white background makes nonsensical, empty claims without one whit of logic or reason. But because it’s a visual artifact, it tricks us into belief and action.
Although the words on a Powerpoint relate directly to an organization and its people, when used in business, decision making tends to take a fairly consistent form. “Here’s a problem. Here is the potential resolution and its steps. This is your role in the organization.”
By the time professionals become executives, they have developed expertise in proposal making, presentational speaking and the generating of problem-solving models and language. They’re also aware of relevant cultural issues, understand the company’s history of success and failure, and inevitably know their employees well. As a consequence, they’re often rhetorical experts, able to pick the most salient issues, use the accepted language and select the most available instruments of persuasion. You can be certain that the Powerpoint slides are not ignoring their audience or overvaluing reliance upon the subject. Like contemporary movies or TV shows, the Powerpoint adopts an aggressive use of the camera, tight control of the screen space, varied lighting, and angles that produces a visual image that documents statements and heightens the spectacle. Although the slides may initially look like mere information, inevitably, they are freighted with an appropriate persuasive and rhetorical stance. And if that’s not true, the execs are dumb asses, not long for their role.
Execs know that making a presentation without Powerpoint would be far less powerful and authoritative—even though they have no real sense of how the tool works beyond the display of words.
If you’re one of those rare birds with a debate or rhetorical background, you’ll know what to do. Set aside the Powerpoint subtext. Get definitions for all that is being stated, remembering that so-called “facts” are merely one person’s set of inferences and conclusions. I’d want to know what other options were considered, what should have been considered that wasn’t and what are the unstated assumptions. In addition, remember that action timelines are terribly fluid, often unachievable. Find out what, specifically, will be your role and get priorities spelled out. Think through, especially, the recommendations in terms of broad-based short and long-term consequences. And figure out, who, if the proposal goes forward, will lose and gain power so you can smartly position your own future.
Those of us who’ve studied artifacts and their use with verbal grammar find that all of them have a number of important features:
- They stress and/or assume the rightness and ennobling characteristics of their audience.
- They build external enemies, causes that can be used to explain away internal weakness. These can become scapegoats.
- They offer rebirth and newness to the audience as a reward for followership.
- They’re always selling something. Even bald-faced information has its corporate uses.
Powerpoint presentations rarely make for an opportunity to discuss the details of the issues I’ve listed above. That’s exactly why they’re used. But it’s always useful to move beyond the explicit assumptions and actions to the implicit. And though you may not ask much out loud, it’s inevitably wise to engage in some CYA thinking with trusted colleagues.
Although I’ve written this from a critical perspective, a perspective that can readily be read as cynical, the insights I’ve laid out can also be reflected as positive, opportunistic and astute. I’ve written from the perspective of a receiver in order to enlighten and protect many unaware of the power of the visual. Of course, my awareness of this power is exactly the reason that, on occasion, I take advantage of the artifact and use it for my own business reasons.
Flickr: Presentation Studios