The medium’s PowerPoint, what’s the message?

My last blog about counting test cases generated a lot of discussion, not just in the comments for my blog, but on other sites and in emails with other testers.

Some of this discussion spilled over into a more general discussion about reporting on test plans and progress.

At the time of the projects I described I was hostile to the idea of counting test cases simply because they weren’t relevant to those projects. I had no theoretical, philosophical problem with them. If they had been a useful way to plan, structure and report on the testing then I’d have happily gone down that route.

I’m now far more sceptical about whether it would ever be useful to turn such a vague, varied concept as a “test case” into something that would serve as a useful basis for structuring the testing. Using test cases as if they were some sort of building block should certainly not be the default option for a test manager, as I used to think.

What matters is what works. We should use what is useful, and that varies depending on the nature of the problem. Rigid standards or processes can be a problem if they command a particular approach without regard for the context.

However, often we impose restrictions on ourselves without realising it. We assume we have to do something a certain way. If you analyse our actions and motives we sometimes do things because that’s the way we always do them, or we’ve got a tool and we just use it without questioning its relevance.

This is a particular problem with our communications. Metrics, reporting, and planning work breakdown structures are usually seen as being primarily about management. They are also a form of communication. That should be a statement of the glaringly obvious, but it’s something we often neglect.

The message, the audience and the medium

If we have to get a message across there are three things to worry about; the message, the audience and the medium (or channel) we’re going to use. They’re inter-related, and the way it should work is that the message and the audience dictate the medium. Obviously there are constraints. If you work in TV or for a newspaper then the medium’s a given, but the general point still holds. The way you communicate depends on the audience and the message.

Unfortunately, we tend to forget that the audience and the message are the starting point. We go straight to our default choice. We grab PowerPoint if we’re going to be up on our feet addressing the audience. We use the same old set of reports and metrics that have been used on every other project. These tools shape the message. The audience just gets dumped on. They get whatever message fits the medium.

We fall back on “tried and trusted” tools and techniques. We don’t stop to think and realise that they’ve been tried and frequently found wanting, but we trust them anyway. What’s the reason? Intellectual laziness? A yearning to stay in our comfort zone? Inertia? Fear of being seen to try something new? I don’t know.

Sometimes it seems that the objective is to do the communication task, to tick off the task on the Gantt chart, not to get a message over.

The medium is the message?

PowerPoint is a glaring example of this deeper problem. There are specific problems with the tool that should make us think more carefully about all the forms of communication that we use.

If you start off with the medium you usually commit two basic sins. Firstly, you tailor, and possibly distort, the message to suit the medium.

My church recently launched a service advising people on how to budget their finances. We invited key people in the community to come to meet us and hear what we were doing.

There are five of us in the team and we expected about 12 to 15 people. I didn’t think a PowerPoint presentation was appropriate. I thought it would be better if we took it in turn to say a few words each and then spend most of the meeting just talking to our guests. We’d help them to get to know and trust us so that they’d feel comfortable referring people to us.

We held a meeting to plan the launch. Someone had brought a PowerPoint presentation along as a starting point to the discussion. The presentation was full of facts and bullet points. It wasn’t about us.

We then spent ages refining the presentation, stripping it back till we had something we could use and that was a bit more like the informal session I’d intended. It took us twice as long because we were doing things back to front. Here’s the tool, this is the message, now who are the audience? I think we got to more or less the right destination, but only because I was being stubborn. We shouldn’t have been using PowerPoint at all. It was just a distraction.

It’s easy to spend more time fiddling with the appearance of the slides than on the real message because we don’t want to appear sloppy or amateurish. The medium becomes more important than the message.

Don’t ignore the audience!

After contorting the message to fit into the limitations of PowerPoint, we then go out to give our presentation – to the screen, with the audience somewhere behind our back.

You ignore your audience because you’re staring at the screen and you tend to forget about the audience. They can just fit in with what you’re doing. That’s the second great sin.

I’m not going to delve into psychology or theories of communication, but the transactional model of communication is interesting. This holds that communication consists of the message, and the feedback to the source. Communication is two way as illustrated by this diagram of the model from Wikipedia.

transactional model

Note how the speaker is looking at the audience, and can pick up feedback.

When I was at university, in the days of slides and overhead projectors, I had an interesting conversation with a lecturer, who explained why he never used notes in lectures. He might scribble some notes and references on the projector as he talked, but he never had a script. His reason was that he knew the subject intimately. Talking without notes forced him to slow down and think about what he was saying, so that he could pace the lecture to the speed with which the students seemed to be taking it in.

If he used notes, he’d just gabble through the lecture exactly as he’d planned it in advance, regardless of the sea of blank, uncomprehending faces in front of him. In fact, he wouldn’t notice these faces. He’d be too busy with the script.

I recently came across this wonderful piece that took that lecturer’s point to another level. Neuroscientist Professor Marian Diamond explains why she doesn’t use PowerPoint for her lectures.

I loved this phrase; “we’re using things that have been shown for learning rather than just keeping up with the technology.”

As an educator, and expert on how the brain works, Professor Diamond knows that PowerPoint is wrong for her and her students.

Using PowerPoint well

If you are going to use PowerPoint, make sure you use it well and don’t cram into too many words and too many slides. Check out a classic article, “Death by PowerPoint”, by Angela Garber warning of the pitfalls of PowerPoint.

Also, have a look at this short piece, which boils down to the maxim, use fewer words and more pictures. It’s from the same site where I picked up the gem from Professor Diamond.

Understand what’s going on

If you have to get a message across you need to really understand what that message is, and who your audience is. You need to analyse what you have to do, because initial assumptions or even direct instructions from above can be misleading. You need to understand for yourself just what you have to do, why you’re doing it, who you’re reaching, and the effect you want to have.

This knowledge can sometimes be a bit dispiriting, e.g. if you realise that the reports and plans you’re producing are really not about helping you, or anyone else, manage the work. They may be simply about compliance with standards, or a defensive measure against auditors, or a mechanism to trigger release of payments to a supplier.

Nevertheless, the knowledge of what is really going on helps you to manage the situation. You can challenge the assumptions, or offer a more effective and efficient way of reaching the same goals, or you can just ensure that your message is precisely shaped for the real targets.

Senior management may be expecting you to count your test cases, and present impressive pie charts. However, they don’t really care about the number of test cases, any more than they really care whether you’re a wizard with PowerPoint.

They need to know that you know where you are, and what you’re doing. Above all they need reassurance, so they can reassure the people on their backs. Give them what they need, and persuade them it’s not necessarily what they’re asking for. If that persuasion requires PowerPoint, then fine. But only if it’s really necessary. Really!

14 thoughts on “The medium’s PowerPoint, what’s the message?

  1. What a coincidence. I was at David Tufte’s seminar on Presenting data and information.

    He talks about how he does not do power point either. He had some really good tips including use what ever medium it takes to make your audience understand data.
    I also hate the part of the suspense that power point tries to create. You can only present data one at a time and it like pulling the curtain slowly. I rather send the information ahead of time and get direct feedback in the meeting instead of presenting it for the first time in power point. People use it as a power they have. Sometimes when you have a question they will be like wait its in the next few slides.
    I am a firm believer of sharing the info ahead of time, so the team or manager can look at metrics/numbers and ask questions instead of them trying to read my power point when I am talking.

    • Hi again Shilpa, and thanks.

      By another coincidence I just picked up a tweet pointing me to this article, which reinforces the point you’re making.

      “PowerPoint tends to make presentations boring because nothing the audience says can make a change to a future slide. The presentation is set and most of the time will continue on its inexorable path regardless of the wishes of the audience. Using an easel chart (I call it a flipchart) changes all that. It immediately signals that there’s room for flexibility and that the audience can play a part in creating your presentation with you.”

      • Thanks James for the link. I liked the post.. so true about not being able to change anything since slides are already set in stone for the duration of the meeting.

  2. Hi James,

    Nice post. I think the shaping of the message by the (presumed, often un-thought-through) medium is a real problem – in business, in education, everywhere. I think most of it is driven by expectations (“it’s what the customer wants”/”this is how we do things, here”/”students expect slides”). Subvert, subvert!

    Oh, and I like your blog 🙂

    – Chris

    • Thanks Chris. I liked the way your tweet about Olivia Mitchell’s blog popped up on Tweetdeck just after I posted my piece. Nice timing!

      The problem of expectations, and the medium taking precedence over the message can be taken to insane lengths.

      I was tempted to include this story I picked up from the Economist recently, but it would have rather unbalanced the piece, so I’m happy to take the chance to slip it in here.

      “In 2006 Georgia Thompson, a civil servant in Wisconsin, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for depriving the public of “the intangible right of honest services”. Her crime was to award a contract (for travel services) to the best bidder. A firm called Adelman Travel scored the most points (on an official scale) for price and quality, so Ms Thompson picked it. She ignored a rule that required her to penalise Adelman for a slapdash presentation when bidding. For this act of common sense, she served four months. (An appeals court freed her.)”

      Here is the link for the source article, which was about the US justice system.

      It’s scary. Failing to place the style above the content, and saving public money by that “failure”, landed someone in prison. I’m tempted to insert an image of Munch’s scream here!

      By the way, I’m grateful that a professional in this field didn’t just shoot me down for my superficial saunter onto your turf! Thanks. 😉

  3. Hi Shilpa,

    I think you raise an interesting point about suspense, but I am going to – respectfully – disagree with you. If there is no suspense, why are people going to pay you any attention at all while you are up there making your presentation? I think there’s definitely mileage in giving people the numbers (etc) up-front (caveat: if they will actually read them – nothing worse than having to rehash all that info in your presentation for the two or three people who haven’t read the briefing document, while everyone else yawns) – this cuts down on standing-and-talking-from-the-front time, but I’d argue that if you are standing up and presenting at all, you need to know something your audience doesn’t (and can’t readily discern from the slides), otherwise they will get bored pretty quickly.

    Of course, how you then go about creating that suspense depends entirely on context … but hopefully a long, tedious reveal of PowerPoint slides isn’t it :o)



  4. Chris I agree there has to be some suspense and it depends on the topic and the audience. If I want people to sit and listen to me and also continue to keep them engaged. But if its important enough where I want genuine feedback or decision is come cases I rather the audience have some time to look at it.
    And yes there are always those few who just wont read it no matter how early you send the info to them.
    When I do training I have to hold the information so they can be presented in a logical manner and people have to get to step 1 before they can get to step 3. I am not opposed to this.
    Again it goes back to who the audience is and what are we trying to present.
    Thanks Chris for your feedback.

  5. Chris I agree there has to be some suspense and it depends on the topic and the audience. If I want people to sit and listen to me and also continue to keep them engaged. But if its important enough where I want genuine feedback or decision is some cases I rather the audience have some time to look at it.
    And yes there are always those few who just wont read it no matter how early you send the info to them.
    When I do training I have to hold the information so they can be presented in a logical manner and people have to get to step 1 before they can get to step 3. I am not opposed to this.
    Again it goes back to who the audience is and what are we trying to present.
    Thanks Chris for your feedback.

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  7. James,

    Another great entry. I recently found myself making the same powerpoint mistake. I was asked to give a talk on automated testing for some people being trained. I’ve only been a full time tester for a year now, but I’ve been pulled onto test teams off and on going back to 2003.

    Anyhow, I only expected to take maybe 40 minutes, somehow I ended up taking 3 times as much. It’s the curse of the word bloat. I can remember going back to early college classes, that I struggled to keep things under certain word limits. While other students would have difficulty getting the minimum, I was having to drop sentences and paragraphs.

    I have always been a bit on the verbose side, and this comment is no different in that regard. But I realized that in the case of this presentation I probably covered more material than could fit in the time I had planned, had more slides to cover some basic principles then needed, and they were wordy.

    I mentally noted to go back and revisit that presentation, trim it, condense it, and if necessary divide into into half or thirds so if I get asked to do it again it won’t be quite as daunting. The problem for me, was I’d never spoken off the cuff about testing in front of others like this before, so internally I registered these things as the presentation went along, but didn’t know how to cut it short that quickly.

    Any suggestions on how to know what to cut if time becomes shorter than anticipated?

  8. Thanks Tim.

    It’s easier to cut stuff out on the fly if your slides are pretty sparse. If you’ve got too many slides and there’s too much in them it’s difficult to skip slides, or skate quickly over a slide with ten detailed bullet points. Your audience will be worrying about what they’re missing rather than concentrating on what you’re actually saying.

    I’m not sure about the best theory to cope with this practical problem, but I try to remember the useful advice I got when I started having to speak in public.

    I’d group my thoughts into three headings. Under each of them there would be three broad points.

    Then structure your slides round those three threes. It’s easy to remember three groups of three. That means you’ve got the content, and the sequence of your talk. You can then talk to the audience, rather than to the screen. You don’t need to keep looking back at the screen and, heaven forbid, reading out the slides.

    It’s also easier to pick up the pace if you find you’re running out of time.

    Also, remember the maxim I quoted above; more pictures and fewer words. That keeps the audience’s attention on you rather than the screen.

    You have to practise and know how it will take you to get through each section. It’s also useful to position yourself where you can see a clock if possible. If you can’t see a clock get someone at the front to signal as each five minutes passes.

    I had a really useful experience once when I was giving the last talk in a day of workshops in Inverness. Many of the audience had come from the Western Isles, and the whole day’s schedule was timed round the ferries. It was a Saturday, and there were no ferries on a Sunday then, so the whole event had to finish bang on time to let people get the 60 miles to the last ferry from Ullapool.

    The time management was ruthless, and speakers were told that they’d be shoved off stage if they overran.

    I had 15 minutes, and I took exactly 15 minutes because I knew I had no option. I had my three threes, and I could see a clock so I was able to keep on schedule.

    There’s nothing like the certain knowledge that half your audience are going to head for the doors if you overrun to keep you on your toes. Now, when time’s an issue I pretend the audience have to catch the last ferry!

  9. Hi James,
    I enjoyed your post; it deals with a very important subject. I have sat through countless presentations and they are always the same slide after slide with bullet lists. I found Cliff Atkinson’s book “Beyond Bullet Points”, very helpful. Also see his website.

    I also find Mindmapping helpful to plan the presentation. In fact I spoke recently at the Houston Project Management Institute on using Mindmapping within Project management, and actually used the map presentation mode. I am not entirely sure about this for all presentations but it was appropriate to the subject and showed the tool in action.

    With regards to the question of pace and content, I tend to use mainly pictures and graphics and have a mind map for my notes, this means that the slides (and the map) serve as an aid to memory for me, and the visuals are hopefully a visual hook for the audience. This also means you can speak more or less for each slide dependant on the audience reaction, (and also extemporise) and if you skip quickly over one it is not as apparent as it would be if it were crammed with data.

    Thank you for a thought provoking post.

    BTW: Where is that in the header picture, I am assuming Perthshire?

    Living here in Texas seeing pictures like that makes me home-sick, and I need to “prick” myself and remember those long dark and dreech winter days

  10. Thanks Jim – good to hear from you in a different context!

    That link and book look interesting. I’ll check them out thoroughly later when I’ve more time.

    I think the mindmapping tip looks great. That’s an important point about the slides being a memory aid for the speaker and a visual hook for the audience. It’s a good way to look at it.

    The picture in the header isn’t Perthshire. It’s one county up to the north, i.e. Inverness-shire. My first post in this blog explained exactly where it is and when I took it.

    You’re not being entirely fair to Scotland. The country looks fantastic on cold, crisp winter’s days, when it’s so clear you can see for ever, and the mountains are covered in snow. Admittedly, it’s not like that every day in winter!

  11. Pingback: >Power (or not) Point – Presentation | Today's Big Picture

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