Saturday, January 28, 2006

Powerpoint, papers, and pinpointing problems

Adam Lake recently posted a gripe about Powerpoint, and it's abuse in corporations. If you work at Intel (like Adam does and I used to) you are familiar with this gripe as Intel is a prime example of a company in which Powerpoint has become the second most common form of information communication. Exactly the type of 'powerpoint cancer' of which Adam's post speaks.

I posted a response on his blog, but in giving it some more thought, figured it deserved it's own post here, so here goes.

After joining MS, there were a couple things that struck me as similar to Intel, and a couple things that struck me as significantly different. One of the most significant differences was this: The majority of proposals outlined in powerpoint are also outlined in a document.

So why is that a big deal?

Couple reasons. First off, it's a lot harder to hand-wave in a document, or at least it's immediately apparent if you do. Second, Powerpoints are not required to 'stand alone' for offline reading, and thus can become that for which they were intended: Presentations that are meant to accompany... a speaker! They are for use in assisting a speaker, not as a substitute for one.

I've been reading Guy Kowasaki's Art of the Start lately, and in it he suggests a 10/20/30 rule: 10 slides, 20 minutes, minimum 30 point font. If you follow it, you simply have no choice but to (a) exclude BS and (b) use your slides as aids, not as containers for 100% of your material. No room, so most of it has to come out of your mouth. I'm also a fan of Cliff Atkinson's Beyond Bullet Points, and while the budget there isn't as strict, there's definitely an alignment with it's recommendation that we should tell a story first and foremost when presenting.

So anyhow, this got me thinking: In a corporate culture where the "paper" is the norm, at least to pack up a proposal of some kind, is there an analogous optimal format? One that would be enough to get to the meat of what's being proposed, while still being narrow enough to not allow for gratuitous hand-waving and jargon-laden obfuscation?

Let me start by trying to be clever and draw analogous split of material too. We'll see if it stands up to scrutiny (this is very much work in progress and I welcome feedback). I'm going to suggest the 1/2/3 format:

  • 1 Page "Complete Story". I didn't call this an "executive summary" because it's not just a summary, it's the story. Also it's not just for executives, it's for anyone that reads it. It should, in the clearest, most jargon-free language possible, explain what's being proposed (size & relevance of opportunity), what's required, who's involved, how and when it will get done (which might be the summary but not detailed description of the business model/technology solution/target market/etc), and why it will succeed.
  • One way to think of it: There can only be three outcomes following someone reading this page: They are uninterested (in which case you've losted them anyway, and another 5 pages won't change things), second, they are immediately sold on it and have stopped reading to call you and offer to enlist, or third, they are intrigued but skeptical or puzzled about a particular detail or hingepoint. The last 5 pages is only for this audience. Everyone else has stopped reading.
  • 2 Page "Core Details": Drawing heavily on Kowasaki's breakdown, think a couple hundred words each on the problem you are trying to solve (you've mentioned it already, but maybe size it, explain the 'pain level' of the problem), the business model (you've mentioned WHAT model, but maybe here you explain the breakdown of who gets what when), etc. Omit the statistics, quotes, etc from this section in order to keep it breif.
  • 3 pages of backup material: The technical explanation of how it works; the statistics from which you derived , etc. If someone needs to fact check or understand how you got to a number, they can go find it back here, but otherwise they should stay out of this section.

Anyhow, just an idea. I'll have to see if this format stands the test when I actually try using it. In the meantime, I welcome feedback!