Decks: why they're so awful, plus stats and a neat video

This is the second in a series of emails on 'decks', reports written in PowerPoint and emailed to people for them to read at their desk. Last month’s email looked at the awful truncated English from which they suffer, and today's looks at other problems they have. Which means this email (and the next) are mostly negative. They tell you what not to do.

Which is progress, of course. Later I tell you what to do instead. If you do decks, please read the emails. If you get sent decks, read them to get insight into the madness and hubris. If you don’t ever see decks, read and have a laugh. Finally, there's a fun video click-through at the end of this email.

On with decks. First, a declaration of love: I love PowerPoint. I use it constantly. For talks. But not for reports... you see, it is possible to do a decent deck-report, but the odds are hugely stacked against it. Consider the stats: over the years, I’ve seen many, many hundreds of deck-reports - yet less than half a dozen were any good. That's a low hit-rate.

It gets worse though. I've seen many, many thousands of reports, of which about 10% were decks - yet decks are the vast majority of the Twenty Worst Reports I’ve seen. All too often, a deck-report is really bad. 

It gets worse again. Of the Twenty Best Reports I’ve seen, not one was a deck. Deck-reports are never really good. 

Conclusion for decks: it's almost impossible to do a good 'un, and frighteningly easy to do a bad 'un. And to understand what causes these bad outcomes, below is a list of ‘deck’ traits that create problems (note that not all decks suffer all these traits/ faults).

Wide rows of text that are tough to read: landscape, font size 10 – result: 28 words on a row. Tough. (The optimum is about 10 words on a row.) Also, deck-writers love ‘reversed font’ (white font on funky blue background) – which hinders readability.  

Frippery by the bucket-load (and the click-throughs are to previous emails that explain more): chevrons, auto-shapes, arrows, colour (tonnes of it, especially in tables with shaded rows - light red, dark red, light red, dark red, etc). And let's not forget icons, photos, company logos, world maps to show income by territory ("Gosh... that's where USA is!!"). And flags... which help, I suppose, if you know your flags. So much time on frippery, so little time to think about the messages to convey.

Space-greedy branding: logos, headers and footers that take up 25% of the page.

Fragmented information that hinders comparison: a deck-rule seems to be one-topic-per-page. Result: ‘objectives’, ‘targets’, ‘results’… that’s three topics, so it’s three pages, even it easily fits on one page. Readers are forced to flick back and forth between pages. Then there’s group 'org' chart – the before is on page 10, the after on page 12. Tough for readers to make comparisons.

Random font sizes(?!): to ensure compliance with 'one-topic-per-page', deck-writers muck around with font sizes. Got too much on one topic and it struggles to fit on a page? No worries - use font size 6, even though it's hard to read. Got just a sentence on another topic and its page looks a bit empty? Use font size 25! (Add a photo too!! That pads the page.) But font sizes give typographical cues to readers, so it's evil to change them randomly.

Layout (1) - distracting variety: deck-writers get creative. Every page is laid out differently. Cool! Which means every page is a journey of discovery for readers. Readers turn to a page and must acclimatise to it... "Now... where do I start reading? And where do I go after that?".  

Layout (2) - untidy pages: PowerPoint lets us shove stuff anywhere. So people do. Result: a mess. (Compare that to MS Word - it has margins that help keep us on track.)

Layout (3) - flawed orientation: in decks, every page is landscape. Result: deck-writers force a flowchart to snake around on a page (see Figure). Or they split a 50-row table in half on a page - 25 rows on the left half of the landscape page, and the other 25 rows on the right half. Or spread the table over two pages. Or do it in font size 6. (I do know that decks can be portrait… but few are. And I’ve never seen a deck with both portrait and landscape, e.g. a portrait page for a tall table, then landscape for a wide table.)

Truncated English: I covered this last month.

Of course, decks often have other faults, e.g. summaries that don't summarise but merely signpost; business-speak; etc. However, such faults don't arise because it’s a deck, for they also occur in reports done in MS Word. Compare that to the above list of faults; they arise because reports are done as decks - and arise far less often in reports done in MS Word.

Let's stop there (albeit I've yet to mention the biggest fault – we see that in a future email). If you read decks, the above list probably resonates. If you write decks, it may irritate, for I’ve noticed that many deck-writers are in denial. They recognise faults in other decks, but not their own. They nit-pick about differences, and don’t recognise similarities. “OK... bad decks have lots of colour,” they surmise, “but my deck only has four... and doesn’t have photos – so it’s fine”. Please avoid denial. As the saying goes, if it quacks and looks like a duck, it probably is a duck. Or a deck. 

Next month I look at deck-lovers' rebuttals. There are loads. Some are quite funny, others are just downright fibs. Stay tuned.

Finally, the fun stuff: here's a neat 3-minute YouTube clip that mocks the 'evolution of a killer slide' (albeit as is often the case with this topic, I'm not entirely clear whether its 'killer slide' is for a talk or for a page in a written report). Do check out the 40 seconds from 1 min 43 secs - it looks at the colour blue and at pictures of chickens. Enjoy.  

Til next month.


P.S. An exception – traditional monthly finance packs: I’ve seen them done well as a deck, and I've a theory as to why. A future email might reveal all. 

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