Using PowerPoint to convey complex issues

PowerPoint is often used to convey complex issues, but often with limited success.   David Vickery explores how to tell a complex story. 
In a previous article, I looked at the criticism voiced by the US military that PowerPoint can create problems when used as the basis for presentations on complex issues.

The argument runs that PowerPoint over-simplifies complicated issues (not all problems are “bullet-isable”); that it uses “fuzzy” bullet points that aren’t concrete enough; and that it misses the interconnections between factors that tend to underlie big challenges.

Others have gone on record with similar critiques of PowerPoint in other areas, such as economics.

So, is this really the case? Is PowerPoint really only suited to explaining relatively simple matters, such as those studied by primary school children? Is it hopelessly out of its depth with something as multi-faceted as the banking crisis?

Thinking about these concerns, something came to mind: an article I read recently celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Etch-A-Sketch. (I have that sort of mind, I’m afraid.)

The chances are that you or your children have played with one of these at some stage in the last half-century (100 million have been sold). I must admit that, much as I enjoy a good doodle on paper, I struggled to do anything on this machine that I wasn’t happy to delete pretty much instantly, using its built-in erase facility.

But on the other hand, I never spent very much time planning what I was going to draw or mastering the controls.

Some people have done both, though, and the results can be incredible. Two artists that have received some publicity for their work on the machine lately are Jeff Gagliardi and George Vlosich. They spend days preparing their drawings. Gagliardi has redone works by Leonardo da Vinci, Van Gogh and Dali, while Vlosich creates collages of pop icons such as Elvis, amongst other pictures.

No one could say that these images are not complex. But the tool they used to create them on is simple.

I think the same is true of PowerPoint. Put enough thought into the selection of your material, and your presentation can be brilliant, no matter how great the complexity of your subject. After all, complex issues break down into simple ones. It could also be argued that complex areas are even more in need of being broken down to their fundamentals.

Recently, a board member of the European Central Bank, Lorenzo bini Smaghi, created a PowerPoint presentation on “inbalances and sustainability in the euro area”. Not many people would consider this a simple subject. Yet by carefully choosing the points he wished to bring out, Smaghi did a great job of getting to the nub of the matter.

Each slide makes a telling point. For example, some Eurozone countries have excessive credit growth, while others lag way behind. The performance of each country and their relationships to each other are clearly shown on Smaghi’s slide on that topic. The reasons for the divergence can then be gone into on further slides, and developed verbally also.

I think the parallels are clear. PowerPoint, like Etch-A-Sketch, is a tool. If it’s mastered, properly planned and cleverly executed, the results can be stunning.

But if it’s just thrown together hastily and without sufficient thought, what you end up with is just a load of scribble.

By David Vickery
Have you used PowerPoint to convey complex issues?  Are you lost by over-complex slides?  We would be interested to hear your opinions.


Published On: 13th Sep 2010

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1 Comment
  1. This site is awesome… and the ideas used are brilliant!!!

    noor 19 Sep at 7:55 am