By Megan Hustad
FORTUNE -- Few pieces of software are as ubiquitous -- and as maligned -- as PowerPoint. Microsoft (MSFT) doesn't track PowerPoint usage numbers but a spokesperson confirmed that Office -- the software package that contains the program -- is used by one billion people worldwide.
Not everyone is happy about that. In an article for the New York Times, reporter Elisabeth Bumiller described military leaders' dismay over how PowerPoint had infiltrated the war effort in Afghanistan. "PowerPoint makes us stupid," said Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps. Others conveyed their impression that PowerPoint stifled discussion, discouraged questions, and generally conveyed less analysis, less persuasively, than the same content would if delivered orally. It also sucked up man-hours. According to the Times, when Company Command asked Lt. Sam Nuxoll what he did most of the day, Nuxoll responded, "Making PowerPoint slides." He wasn't kidding.
Some company leaders are reacting to this grumbling by trying to curtail its use. They're either stipulating no presentation decks -- period -- or limiting the number of slides allowed.
A fine idea, says Warren Berger, design expert and author of Glimmer, but perhaps beside the point. The problem is not PowerPoint, or even how much time is spent preparing decks, but how it's used, Berger argues. The hardest thing with any presentation is looking your audience squarely in the face -- and that's precisely what presentation software allows people to avoid.
"People are using PowerPoint as a way to limit their engagement with the audience. Whether they realize it or not, they're using it that way," Berger said when I reached him on the phone.
According to Terri Sjodin, speaker and author of the forthcoming Small Message, Big Impact, people use PowerPoint because "it's the best, most socially acceptable crutch." No one aspires to deliver a boring presentation that's information-heavy but light on persuasion, she points out. But peer pressure and the age-old fear of public speaking tend to get the better of us.
This points to an interesting possibility: that we resort to presentation software in the subconscious hope of deflecting the audience's scrutiny and judgment from us to our slides.
"It takes people's eyes off of you," says Berger. "So you can basically be engaged with your slides instead of engaging with the audience. And similarly the audience can be engaged with the slides instead of you."
Oddly enough, Richard Saul Wurman, originator of the TED conference -- definitely a culprit in popularizing the PowerPoint-backed speech -- insisted on doing away with speaker podiums precisely in order to intensify the uncomfortable feeling of having too much attention trained on you. (As he put it: "I wanted [the speaker] to feel more vulnerable.") More
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