It’s almost exactly a year since I last felt the urge to write anything about presentations and bad powerpoint.  That’s not because the world has suddenly become a better place, but because there doesn’t seem much more to say.  But an experience today has reminded me just how critically important this stuff is.

I arrived a bit late for an event hosted by a big technology company, so ended up sitting right at the back of the rather grand room.  There was a big screen at the front, behind the speakers, and two smaller screens halfway down, one of each side of the room.  That would have been fine if all the speakers had kept, say, to Guy Kawasaki’s rules:

It’s quite simple: a PowerPoint presentation should have ten slides, last no more than twenty minutes, and contain no font smaller than thirty points…

If “thirty points,” is too dogmatic, the I offer you an algorithm: find out the age of the oldest person in your audience and divide it by two. That’s your optimal font size.

But they didn’t.  One of the speakers in particular used slides with quite a lot of words.  That much I could see.  But I couldn’t actually read a single word on any of them.  Even that might have been just about bearable – until his final slide, which consisted of a quotation from someone or other (I couldn’t read that either).  His grand peroration consisted of introducing the quotation – and then leaving us all to read it for ourselves.  Or, of course, not.

Not all of that was the speaker’s fault.  The screens wouldn’t have been brilliant even for better slides.  And maybe nobody had told him about the size and layout of the room.  And on top of all that, the acoustics didn’t favour his voice, and the sound system wasn’t good enough to compensate.

None of that would have been nearly as much of a problem if his slides had been simpler, more dramatic – if they had, quite literally shown the bigger picture.  Or, of course, if somebody had paused to think about how the slides would work in the environment in which they were going to be used.

Rules are definitely made to be broken.  I admire the bravura performers who can fit dozens of slides into quite short presentations – this one by Dick Hardt remains one my favourites (bear with it until you get past the guy in the shirt) which is modelled, as he acknowledges, after a style awesomely deployed by Lawrence Lessig – so I certainly don’t agree with any of the x slides in y minutes rules.  But as with anything else, mastering the technique is an essential precursor to breaking rules.