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Weekly Column

Now Hear This: If We’re in Trouble, Its Probably Because People No Longer Really Listen

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

Mark Goldstein, who most recently ran for K-Mart, is the only person I know who also knows Martha Stewart. Even more interestingly, he is also the only person I know who thinks Stewart is innocent in her insider trading trial. Mark e-mailed me recently to describe the new business he’s starting, which I will cover in a few weeks. “I’ll send you the stack,” he wrote, “then tell me what you think.” Of course, what Mark’s referring to is a PowerPoint presentation on his new company, but the way he described it as a stack made me realize that more and more what I’m getting from companies large and small is just that � PowerPoint stacks, rather than business plans or documents of any substance. In the modern taxonomy of selling a business idea, there is the business plan itself, with associated spreadsheets, the executive summary to that business plan, and of course the stack of PowerPoint slides. An average business plan that hits my desk has probably 10,000 words, while the typical executive summary is 500 to 1,000 words and a PowerPoint stack is 300 to 500 words. They all purport to describe precisely the same enterprise, but as a guy who pumps 100,000 words per year into this page, I have to believe that relying on the executive summary or �- even worse -� just the PowerPoint stack can lead to both misperceptions and bad decisions. And now it turns out that I’m right.

Read The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint by Edward Tufte for a sobering analysis of how the truth typically gets mangled on its way through your PC. It isn’t the fault of PowerPoint, of course, but in the way we use it. Our first error is sending those darned stacks, since the intent of PowerPoint is to be an important component of a live presentation. PowerPoint is supposed to play the role of the nerdy kid from the A/V department who keeps all your slides straight and makes you look good. But more often than not, I get the stack without the presenter, and no matter how smart or informed I am, any solo effort to expend that stack into an adequate proxy for a 10,000-word document is simply bound to come up short.

Often (though not in this case of Mark Goldstein, I assure you), this failure is intentional. Not only is it easier to throw together a stack of PowerPoint slides than it is to write that 10,000-word document, it is much easier to leave out or gloss over parts of the project that might not survive close scrutiny if they were described in complete sentences. Can you say “weapons of mass destruction?” If we cut to the heart of this current controversy about whether Iraq really had WMD, whether the U.S. honestly believed Iraq had WMD, and who got it wrong, I’m sure we’ll end up with a guilty PowerPoint stack. In that stack, you’ll find a slide containing the words “Iraq” and “WMD” but taken out of context, there is no way of knowing what the presenter even intended the slide to mean. Thus, we have plausible deniability through PowerPoint.

Do a Google search on “PowerPoint” and “WMD,” and you’ll find dozens of stacks ready to confuse you. If you don’t want to bother doing the search yourself, I’ve done one for you in this week’s links.

None of this is new, of course. At IBM back in the 1970s, the weapon of choice for rising in the company was the “foil” �- a stack of acetate sheets that functioned precisely like PowerPoint slides when used on an overhead projector. Just as there are PowerPoint artists today, there were foil artists back then. And in both eras, some of these artists were more concerned with selling the idea than with adequately describing it or even understanding it.

Part of the problem, of course, is that everything is rushed. I’ve seen “The West Wing.” The President blows into the room, sees two slides, hears 29 words of analysis and makes a decision on the spot. And while it happens that way on TV, it also tends to happen that way in reality, both in government and industry.

Charles Simonyi, architect of software development the Microsoft Way, felt that if a development manager could make the right decision 85 percent of the time, it was better in the long run to just accept a 15 percent error rate than to agonize over decisions. Of course, Microsoft hardly ever has to decide whether or not to go to war.

And maybe that ought to be the point here. There are instances in which some deliberation probably is in order, but we don’t do it. We have staff-generated reports upon which to base decisions, but often no idea of what biases are embedded in those reports �- reports that are more typically presented in PowerPoint than in Word.

Now jump back to my columns of the last couple weeks, where we saw what were bad decisions made in a facile manner that was probably lubricated with a big dose of PowerPoint.

So what’s to be done? Well, we can’t ban PowerPoint, which after all exists for the very purpose of making people better informed, not worse. What we can do, however, is lead by example. We can just say no to PowerPoint.

I give a lot of speeches, taking my biases and bad humor on the road to explain tech reality to all types of groups. And whether I am talking to 10 people or 3,700 (my personal best so far), I leave my notebook computer behind. You see it is my belief that people can read your slides or listen to what you are saying, but they can’t do both things at the same time. And because it is easier to read than listen if you are age 15 or older, a good PowerPoint artist doesn’t really have to say much at all. That’s good for him or her, but bad for the audience. So I make them work. I talk too fast, tell too many stories, make too many bald conclusions, and generally put a hurt on the audience that they simply aren’t used to. I make them think with me. And you know what happens? They love it. They love the complete sentences. They love having not just the conclusion to work with, but everything leading up to that conclusion. And because I am either so over-prepared or under-prepared that the speech can go off in any direction that we all find to be of interest, no two speeches are ever alike. How unPowerPoint of me.

My point here is not that I’m God’s gift to public speaking, but that what I do is PUBLIC SPEAKING, not public posturing or bustier ripping. I have nothing to sell. My goal is actual communication. How quaint.

But wait, there‘s more! I keep getting e-mail messages from people that I literally can’t understand. These people went to good schools and presumably know how to write in complete sentences, but instead they send me gibberish. This week, I called a practitioner of this gibberish, and he explained it was “conversational e-mailese.”


Conversational e-mailese is a way to shout without speaking, to draw attention without informing. It is no way to get chicks. But for a PowerPoint, SMS, ICQ generation, I guess it will have to do. No wonder we’re making such bad decisions.

“Here, you see, it takes all the running you can do just to stay in one place,” said the Red Queen.

Or does it?

We are none of us that important, and if we think we are, then we are wrong. It doesn’t have to be this way. People often send me e-mail not expecting a reply, and certainly not expecting a reply actually from me. But what they get is not only me (I have no assistants but that is counterbalanced by my lack of a life), but LOTS of me -� words and words and words and words. People are amazed, but they shouldn’t be, because I am dedicated to sharing ideas, and the major way I learn is from you.

Which brings me to the most amazing event that happened to me this week. I called Warren Buffett, head of Berkshire Hathaway, and after Bill Gates, the richest man in the world. And he answered his own phone.

I’m only glad I didn’t send him a stack.

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