Curse of Knowledge

PowerPoint inventors on the suckiness of PowerPoint

I am strangely fascinated by the philosophical debates about PowerPoint. Edward Tufte, who’s a hero of ours, is virulently opposed to PowerPoint. I’m someone who uses it constantly, so it would be a bit hypocritical for me to rant against it. True, I think it enables a lot of our worst tendencies (being verbose, summarizing rather than unpacking, using bulletized abstractions rather than concrete examples, thinking in terms of a collection of points rather than a storyline, “telling” rather than teasing, etc. … as a matter of fact, this parenthetical comment is itself rather PowerPointian). But I also have to say that the existence of Krispy Kreme enables a lot of my worst tendencies, too, and I don’t have an unkind word to say about them. It’s certainly *possible* to create a kick-ass PowerPoint, and it’s certainly *possible* not to eat a half-dozen doughnuts when you walk in KK. So.

In the WSJ, Lee Gomes has interviewed the inventors of PowerPoint to get their take on the anti-PPT criticisms. The surprise: They basically agree. Here’s an excerpt:

Mr. Gaskins and Mr. Austin, now 63 and 60, respectively, reflected on PowerPoint’s creation and its current omnipresence in an interview last week. They are intensely proud of their technical and strategic successes. But to a striking degree, they aren’t the least bit defensive about the criticisms routinely heard of PowerPoint. In fact, the best single source of PowerPoint commentary, both pro and con, (including a rich vein of Dilbert cartoons) can be found at, his personal home page.

Perhaps the most scathing criticism comes from the Yale graphics guru Edward Tufte, who says the software “elevates format over content, betraying an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.” He even suggested PowerPoint played a role in the Columbia shuttle disaster, as some vital technical news was buried in an otherwise upbeat slide.

No quarrel from Mr. Gaskins: “All the things Tufte says are absolutely true. People often make very bad use of PowerPoint.”

Mr. Gaskins reminds his questioner that a PowerPoint presentation was never supposed to be the entire proposal, just a quick summary of something longer and better thought out. He cites as an example his original business plan for the program: 53 densely argued pages long. The dozen or so slides that accompanied it were but the highlights.

Since then, he complains, “a lot of people in business have given up writing the documents. They just write the presentations, which are summaries without the detail, without the backup. A lot of people don’t like the intellectual rigor of actually doing the work.”

On mission statements

Here’s an excerpt from a punchy, funny book review by Richard J. Tofel that you won’t be able to read because it’s in the WSJ. The book being reviewed is 101 Mission Statements from Top Companies by Jeffrey Abrahams. Chip and I are both continually shocked by the fact that the average corporate mission statement is long on statement and short on mission.

Alcoa is a big company. They make some of the best aluminum on Earth. Once upon a time, they made all of the aluminum, but that is another story. Our story is about vision. What is Alcoa’s vision? “At Alcoa, our vision is to be the best company in the world.” What?

Hershey is a less-big company. They make some of the best chocolate on Earth. Hershey has a 65-word mission. It includes “Undisputed Marketplace Leadership” and “top-tier value creation” from a “portfolio of brands.” Not one of the 65 words is “chocolate.” Huh? …

In fact, a certain kind of mission statement — well phrased and properly promulgated — can inspire companies and the people who work in them. It can help managers remember what they’re trying to accomplish and what’s beyond the scope of their enterprise. It can guide a company’s decisions about allocating capital. But to do so it must have content, and most of the samples on display in “101 Mission Statements” don’t.

A few pass the test, though. Johnson & Johnson’s adherence to its “credo” saved the company from disaster. Its pledge of “first responsibility” to “doctors, nurses and patients, to mothers and fathers” was cited, in 1982, as the reason for the famous recall of Tylenol, one of J&J’s products. Ben & Jerry’s sells not just fine ice cream but “euphoric concoctions.” (True enough.) The Coca-Cola Co.’s flagship product is so iconic that the company can allude to its own historic advertising when defining its ambition: “to benefit and refresh everyone it touches.”

Achieving such clarity does not require that companies operate in an especially exciting line of work. Progressive Insurance’s vision is prosaic but compelling: “to reduce the human trauma and economic costs associated with automobile accidents.”

As always, a sense of humor can make a difference. What defines the identity of a particular breakfast-food manufacturer? Not the key words “excellence” or “shareholders” or even “unique.” Instead, the Kellogg Co. says of itself: “We build Gr-r-reat brands and make the world a little happier by bringing our best to you.” When you get it right, you can even leave out the word “cereal.”

Why don’t we know more about Iraq?

The fifth and final post over at Powell’s — if you can only read one post from the week, read this one. I’d love to get some communal thinking going on this issue. If you have thoughts, please email me or post a comment.

Talking Strategy Manifesto

Our friends at ChangeThis just published our manifesto, Talking Strategy: Three Straightforward Ways to Make Your Strategy Stick. Chip and I believe that most organizations do a lousy job communicating their strategies internally. Most execs seem to believe that formulating a strategy is 90% of the battle. If you’re a sole proprietor, that’s true. In a larger organization, though, the test of a strategy is how effectively it guides the specific actions of specific people. And that is fundamentally a communications challenge.

Once you realize that, the action plan becomes clear. You’ve got to translate the strategy into concrete terms that your folks can understand (not “maximize shareholder value”). You’ve got to make sure the strategy is specific enough to be useful to your employees (i.e., it helps them make decisions better). And perhaps most importantly, you’ve got to establish a language that makes it easier for the front-line people to talk back to the boardroom people in terms that both understand. If you do these things, you can avoid the 3 nasty barriers that impede strong strategic communication.

To learn about the full nastiness of those 3 barriers–and to see whether your own organization suffers from them–go check out the manifesto. And tell us what you think of it.

The Stickiness Aptitude Test

We worked with Guy Kawasaki (and the folks at Electric Pulp) to create a “Stickiness Aptitude Test.” It’s designed for entrepreneurs who want to assess the stickiness of their message. Check it out!

Also we had an interesting Q&A with him, including some discussion of the stickiness of products. In non-Made To Stick news, there’s a great blow-by-blow analysis of Guy’s LinkedIn page by two LinkedIn insiders. They’re essentially trying to make Guy’s page stickier (though they don’t use that language). Chip and I have been talking a lot lately about how to apply stickiness principles to personal promotion, as in a job interview situation. More to come.