Imprisoned by PowerPoint: A Foolproof Escape Plan in Five Steps

Chris Westfall

It’s no secret that the richest man in modern history, Jeff Bezos, has outlawed PowerPoint for all employees at Amazon. Replacing the venerable Microsoft product with multi-page memos may or may not be a future-proof strategy, but it’s now the law at Seattle’s largest company. At Amazon, meetings begin with a narrative-style memo (no bullet points) that’s handed out to all participants. According to Bezos, executives spend as much as 30 minutes reading—in silence—just to take in all the information.

Why start a meeting with study hall? Because, Bezos says, “Just like high school kids, executives will bluff their way through the meeting, as if they’ve read the memo.”

For most of us, eliminating PowerPoint (or Keynote, its Apple cousin) isn’t the answer. What makes a tool useful is the way you use it. And the key word here is “tool”; the PowerPoint document is not the presentation.

Until your company becomes as enlightened as Amazon—and forces you to read the memo—chances are you will still be imprisoned by PowerPoint presentations. But freedom is closer than you think. Here’s where to look, with a five-step plan that will unlock your message and create the kind of dialogue you really want.

Step 1: Create a Flex-Agenda.

The banking executive was frustrated. He had prepared an epic slide deck for government regulators, yet only two minutes into the presentation, they were already peppering him with questions. He asked if they could hold their questions until the end. They quickly informed him that they were U.S. government regulators, and he would answer their questions as they arose, period. Derailed from his plans, the banking executive lost his composure. Eventually, he managed to muddle through their questions and his slides, but he didn’t cover all of the material he wanted.
“What could I do?” he asked me, sheepishly. We had to figure out a way for him to be okay with unexpected questions. “Wait a minute,” he realized. “What if the presentation…was a conversation?”

So many times, we get locked into delivering all 394 slides no matter what. But whose agenda matters more? Yours? Or your audience’s?

Step 2: Spark a Dialogue.

In every meeting, there are two presentations: the one you give, and the one your audience hears. For my client who turned the presentation into a conversation, he realized he needed the one thing PowerPoint couldn’t provide: a dialogue.
Ask yourself: How can you use questions to foster discussion at key points in your presentation? Or at any point in your presentation? No one wants to be speechified, read to, or data dumped. Get others thinking—and find out what they’re actually hearing—before you move on to that next slide.

Step 3: Share Your Vision.

One of the exercises I use with my business clients is asking them to describe pictures to their colleagues. The catch? They have to describe pictures only they can see. It’s a miniature leadership test: Can you share your vision effectively?

With PowerPoint, your pictures don’t have to be hidden. Leverage the research of Dr. L.D. Rosenblum, who shared inSee What I’m Saying that 83 percent of the information we receive is visual. Compare that to the 11 percent of information that comes from what we hear. You’re probably already sensing that PowerPoint leverages our internal wiring, if you use it correctly. The pictures, graphs, and imagery support your narrative. Show the picture, tell the story. If you put text on a slide, the first thing your audience will do is read it. Is that what you want? If you’d like them to read your presentation, why are you standing at the front of the room? Sit down; you’re blocking the view. Or, stand up and bring a story that people haven’t heard (or read) before. That’s the only conversation worth having.

Step 4: Make It Simple.

Albert Einstein once said that if you can’t explain a subject simply, you don’t really understand it. While complexity can be a part of job security, details can handcuff your presentation. If your slides are so dense and convoluted that you need an abacus and a GPS to find your way out of the slide, you’re making a mistake—and punishing your audience in the process. There are those who say you should use various rules, like 5 x 5 for bullets and words. That’s not bad, but what about this rule-breaking breakthrough: one slide, one idea.

If this is a conversation, keep it simple, and help the audience to see things in a new way. If you’re explaining a process, stop midway and see if anyone can guess what’s next. If you really understand your subject, you won’t be afraid to get the audience involved.

Step 5: Don’t Be the Sage on the Stage.

If you find yourself trying to prove how smart you are, or if you’re leveraging your vast product knowledge, educational experience, or intellectual heft to prove your point, don’t. Stop. Right. There. None of us is as smart as all of us. Help your audience to see something new, not just how smart you are. Use PowerPoint in the way it was intended: to support your narrative, illustrate key points, and emphasize the most relevant information. You’re already at the front of the room, why waste time trying to prove you belong there?

If your expertise was a given and could never be in doubt, what presentation would you give? And how would you shift your focus to the intellectual question that matters most: How’s your audience doing? Because if you’re doing anything other than creating insights, value, and impact, you probably should have just shared your thoughts in an email.

PowerPoint isn’t going away for most of us. But you can break free of its chains by remembering that you are the storyteller. Technology doesn’t drive the narrative, you do. Practice using more imagery in your message, ask questions of your audience, and make sure you’re generating the dialogue you deserve. Want to experience true freedom, whether you use PowerPoint or not? Turn your next presentation into a conversation, and break out some new ideas for your audience.

Chris Westfall is a sought-after business consultant, communication coach, keynote speaker and the author, co-author or publisher of eight books. Advising hundreds of thousands of leaders from high-growth entrepreneurial enterprises, Shark Tank startups, and Fortune 100 companies, he has helped create multimillion-dollar revenue streams for businesses on four continents. He is the U.S. National Elevator Pitch Champion and the author of the new book Leadership Language: Using Authentic Communication to Drive Results (Wiley, 2018). To learn more, visit