Decks: why slide-sorter can be so evil

Here's the next email in a series on ‘decks’ – reports written in PowerPoint, then emailed for people to read. Previous emails looked at (1) decks' weird truncated English, and (2) why almost all decks are bad - and today, I'd intended to debunk reasons deck-lovers give to justify decks. But no. A change of plan. This email looks at PowerPoint's 'slide-sorter' function - how it's great for talks, but the root of much evil for decks.

Don't get me wrong... slide-sorter is great for sorting slides for talks - that's why it exists - but problems arise when we use it to create decks. To understand why, step back and consider how people create decks: imagine that you, Pat and I must write a report - two months ago, bosses asked us to review our firm’s controls, and we’ve since sent them two 'deck' reports: (1) our Project Plan; (2) our Interim Progress report. We must now write our Final report – so we divide up the task: you write a page on Background and another on Objectives, Pat also writes two pages (Current Situation and Problems), and I do two too (Proposals and Benefits).

Demarcation. Much easier… so long as we follow the First Rule of Deck Club: one topic per page. Six topics on six pages.

And this Rule is vital. It means we can easily stitch together our pages in PowerPoint's slide-sorter. And can easily add ten more pages to our report: (1) front page (with photos); (2) index; (3) summary; (4) – (9) front pages for each of the six sections (e.g. a whole page that says: "Section 2: Objectives"); (10) back page that says: “Thank You! Any Questions?” (which is a strange thing to add to a written report.... but we add it because of the 'identity-crisis' we saw in this earlier email - we aren't sure if we're creating slides for a talk or pages of a report).

So... pages stitched, job done. Also, our report has grown to 16 pages. Impressive, huh! As a deck-writer once told me, it’s easier to do a 30-page deck than a three-page report.  

The deck-lovers' mantra - "Reuse, recycle": but it gets worse. We take short cuts. Hell... don’t create new pages – that’s time-consuming. No. Recycle ones from previous decks! And with PowerPoint, it's easy to do this... e.g. we need a page on Objectives, so we simply copy one across from our Interim Progress report. Quick, easy, and it bulks our report.

With decks, you never use a slide just once. Noooo... thanks to slide-sorter, slides live on.

Let's recap. Here’s how – with PowerPoint’s connivance – we create our deck: (1) carve up the task; (2) ban more than one topic per page; (3) recycle old pages; (4) stitch together in slide-sorter; (5) add a cover, index, etc. We do this for strategy reviews, marketing plans, project updates, etc. And the consequence? Bad decks... slide-sorter enables many of decks' faults, and because we've seen the faults in a previous email, I list them here in one breathless paragraph:

(1) Too much content: we recycle pages, and hence include everything we know... whereas we should include what readers need to know; (2) yet paradoxically, too many content-thin pages: e.g. even if we've just one paragraph to write on each of three topics (Objectives, Plan, Progress), we still spread them over three pages; hence (3) fragmented information that lacks comparability: to compare Objectives to Plan, and Plan to Progress, readers must flick back and forth between pages; (4) frippery: one paragraph on a page... it seems a bit empty, so to fill it a bit, deck-lovers shove in photos, autoshapes, etc. They tell me they do this.

Nothing new in those faults (assuming you've read the previous emails) - so here's a new fault, and it's a big 'un: we write - and think - in silos. Slide-sorter almost encourages us to do so. On separate pages, we show Pat's Current Situation (the before) and my Proposals (the after). Pat recycles a page to show existing controls (eight of them). I then recycle the same page, but edit it a bit to show the proposed controls (now nine).

OK, it’s linear - where we are, where we want to be. But unhelpful. Readers flick back and forth between pages, playing a game of spot-the-difference (“Eight controls before, nine now…'” they ponder, “seems like we keep five, ditch three, and add four… I think”).

Of course, we could add more pages - ones that compare before and after – but most deck-writers don’t. Look out for this in decks - see how often you must flick back and forth to compare and contrast the before and after.  

Let's stop there today. Next month we see how decks often conspire to create lazy over-simplified thinking. Stay tuned even if you don’t do decks, because we see stuff that's useful for reports created in MS Word.


P.S. Slide-sorter – take care with pseudo-science: slide-sorter is great for sorting slides for a talk, but please ignore advice I’ve seen several times: “You should be able to see your talk’s underlying logic from looking at the slide-sorter”. Nonsense. A mate of mine showed just screen-filling photos in his talk, and in one talk, I showed just playing cards. Slide-sorter wouldn’t reveal either talk’s underlying logic, and that’s because the slides lack our accompanying words.

After all, slide-sorter... it sorts slides, which is why it’s called ‘slide-sorter’. It’s not called ‘slide-logic-checker’. The clue is in the name.

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