Is Jeff Bezos Wrong to Ban Powerpoint?

by Jonathan Carey, June 20, 2018

“We don’t do PowerPoint presentations at Amazon,” wrote Jeff Bezos in Amazon’s recent Letter to Shareholders. “The traditional kind of corporate meeting starts with a presentation. Somebody gets up in front of the room and presents … some type of slide show. In our view you get very little information, you get bullet points. This is easy for the presenter, but difficult for the audience.” Instead, presenters at Amazon “write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of ‘study hall.'” 

Six-page memos are exchanged at a team meeting

Bezos is hardly alone in criticizing hastily-prepared bullet-point presentations. Steve Jobs once said, “I hate the way people use slide presentations instead of thinking.” Andy Grove, the late Intel leader, also considered written reports to be superior to presentations because “the author is forced to be more precise than he might be verbally.” These leaders seem to agree that the real magic happens during the refinement process before a formal presentation.

Bezos also shared his thoughts on what determines memo quality. Presenters “mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind.”

Memos are written and re-written

But is it fair for Bezos to blame a tool like PowerPoint for his staff shortcutting the idea refinement process? Might a slide deck also benefit from the same thoughtful collaboration needed to write a high-standards, six-page memo?

It seems that Bezos’ main point is that leaders need a robust process to turn their ideas into memorable and persuasive communications. However, there is nothing stopping Amazon’s presenters (nor litigators) from adding visual design to the same comprehensive idea development process used to create a narratively structured six-page memo. Even Bezos might agree that a carefully-crafted PowerPoint slideshow that includes narrative graphics may be more effective than a deck of bullet-point text slides quickly drafted just before a presentation.

Would Bezos try to stop Amazon’s trial counsel from using a thoughtfully-edited slide deck with a jury? Following Bezos’ ideals for memo writers, litigators can integrate feedback from other attorneys, experts, and focus group participants into their trial presentation. During the weeks before trial begins, litigators often test and refine their case stories. As part of this same process, lawyers also can test and refine trial graphics and slides to learn how to persuade decision makers to rule for their client.

Like most lawyers, Bezos’s preference for written memos and spoken words may indicate a preference for verbal learning. However, according to learning experts, 65% of jurors are likely to be visual learners who will appreciate when lawyers use slides with graphics to organize a case story for them. Visual learners not only have more trouble remembering testimonial evidence than those who may favor verbal learning, but their learning style requires presenters to outline their overall narrative and purpose before they can assimilate evidence. 

Visual vs. verbal learning

Even jurors who favor verbal learning may appreciate and be persuaded by visuals – just perhaps by different kinds of visuals. Furthermore, in the hands of someone with design skills, PowerPoint can display more than the simple bullet-point text slides that Bezos, Jobs and Grove abhor. Lawyers can develop pictorial graphics to explain their roadmap, themes and suggested relief. To help jurors keep a story and the evidence straight over a lengthy trial, lawyers can use organizing graphics to track concepts and details and storytelling graphics to help explain how the evidence may favor one side.

There is a small chance that Amazon employs mostly verbal learners who prefer to receive new information through narratively structured, six-page memos. However, it seems more likely that Bezos may be unaware that up to 65% of his staff may have a learning preference different from his own. Banning PowerPoint entirely may deprive visual learners and communicators at Amazon from fully expressing their ideas.

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