Power corrupts, PowerPoint corrupts absolutely

The title of this post might suggest that I see no use for Microsoft’s presentation application. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s great fun and as an aid to primary school homework and, as a support for lecturers facing 50 or more people, it has a role to play. However, I'm far less convinced that it's the ideal application for conveying financial information to small groups.

At a couple of meetings that I have attended recently, people have mentioned the use of PowerPoint as a common method of presenting information to a board meeting. The data is acquired, coordinated and prepared in Excel, or similar, before PowerPoint is used to create a presentation explaining the significance of the figures. If this ever was an optimal way to present financial information, it isn’t now. Although my reservations about PowerPoint are relatively minor compared to his, for a damning assessment of the harm that PowerPoint can do, it’s worth reading Edward Tufte’s short polemic: “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within”. In this 31-page diatribe, Tufte assesses the part PowerPoint played in the space shuttle Columbia disaster and likens the style of presentation to that of Joseph Stalin.

I wouldn’t go as far as portraying PowerPoint as a significant force for evil, but there are certainly questions as to how effective it is in helping small groups of people to understand complicated information and thus make the right decisions based on that information.

Just in terms of the mechanics of using PowerPoint to present information harvested from an accounting package or a spreadsheet, it imposes an additional link in the chain from original data to final report. This is not only a likely waste of time and effort, but also an additional opportunity for error as figures are transferred. Even if the link from spreadsheet to presentation is automatic, it’s important to ensure that all links still refer to the correct information and have all been refreshed to show the latest figures.

Looking more deeply into how PowerPoint presents information, its very design suggests low detail and high impact. Slides are restricted in size and typically present short points in a large font size. The temptation to use PowerPoint’s graphics and animation capabilities can often be too hard to resist. Although there are ways to make a PowerPoint presentation more interactive, PowerPoint generally enforces a very linear style of presentation. Anyone who has watched a less-experienced PowerPoint presenter try and go back a slide or two will appreciate the obstacles that PowerPoint can create to spontaneous exploration and discussion.

Perhaps more significant though is the disconnect between the underlying data and the final report. If you want to impose your view or restrict discussion, then the linearity of PowerPoint is a great ally. Breaking the chain between detail and summary is an effective way to prevent the audience from questioning and exploring your conclusions. When spreadsheet reports were static, the disadvantages of using PowerPoints tables and charts were not particularly significant. Since PivotTables, and latterly the Power BI range of tools, greatly simplified the examination of data interactively, PowerPoint is at a distinct disadvantage. Properly set up, a spreadsheet can easily present a high-level summary of the data and include the ability to filter and reorganise the view with a few clicks. Perhaps even more importantly, a spreadsheet preservers the ability to drill down through levels of detail if required.

If PowerPoint was at a disadvantage after the introduction of PivotTables, then the introduction of Power BI desktop relegates PowerPoint even further. We now have a freely available application that is designed to link dynamically to our data, whether in a spreadsheet or in an accounting system, and present it interactively. As well as a comprehensive, and growing range of visualisations, Power BI also includes the ability to animate charts using a time and date field.

As qualified accountants, our expertise in communicating financial information, including through the use of advanced business graphics, should be unparalleled. Instead of enabling and enhancing this process, PowerPoint just gets in the way of being able to utilise this expertise effectively.

Of course, this is only my view. Please feel free to leap to PowerPoint’s defence by adding a comment, particularly if you can refer to a practical example of why I’ve got it completely wrong.