The Lost Art of Writing - And the Dangerous Side Effects

Have PowerPoint presentations taken the place of well-written proposals?

I don’t want to think about how long ago I started my career. It was at Procter & Gamble and I was right out of undergrad where I had studied to be an advertising copywriter.  I was pretty confident I could write. I had had those skills reinforced by positive feedback from professors and friends.

But little did I know just how little I knew.

Over time, with training and practice, I got better and eventually became the writer I had always thought that I was.

On my very first day at the company, I was told that Procter was a company that was dependent on writing.  In order to move ahead, you had to understand how to write with precision and persuasion. Decisions were made by the management based on the analysis, judgment and presentation of the people closest to the business.  If you could not make your case using the written word, you and your ideas were going nowhere.

Eventually, what I came to realize was that the writing was only a vehicle. The discipline of forcing my thoughts, analyses, hypotheses, and judgment to paper was simply the byproduct of better thinking, better analyses and better judgment. 

The process I went through to write a crisp, persuasive document in a page or two was clarifying the way I attacked a problem, the way I expressed myself in meetings, the way I trained and managed my own people.

I left Procter many years ago and have worked with a number of very large and very small companies over the years.  I have retained my respect for the power of the written word and the thinking that has gone along with it.  But more and more, I’ve been exposed to companies that have forgotten how to write. Or maybe never knew. There is a dependence on PowerPoint presentations and clipped emails to communicate.

I’ve heard the logic.  They moved to fast for documents.  Our people won’t put up with that. It’s old school.

Now I think there is a place for PowerPoint presentations, but they should not be used to replace the discipline and rigor required in the preparation of a written proposal. The shorthand associated with many PowerPoint decks has significant shortcomings.

First of all, the audience in the room is totally dependent on the verbalization of the thinking that accompanies the slides.  The connective tissue that has to be provided orally is often where the real thinking is. This requires the listener to note which items they think the presenter is prioritizing.

Second, the people who are not in the meeting often are totally dependent on the PowerPoint deck to understand what was proposed and why. How can that even happen without a transcript – which would be a written document?

But, to me the worst aspect of this over-dependence on PowerPoint presentations is that we have lost the ability to work through complex problems, and to organize them in a thoughtful, clear, concise and simple way. In so doing, we have also lost the ability for our people to showcase their thinking, and to showcase their leadership skills. As a result, we not only hurt our managements’ ability to make better decisions, but have also undermined the development of our young people’s skills of analysis, judgment and persuasion.

Here is what I am suggesting and have suggested to anyone who will listen.

Before you schedule a PowerPoint presentation on a significant topic, write a two-page document that presents the recommendation and its basis.  Think about it. Outline it. Consider it and edit it.  Then provide that, in document form – not in PowerPoint form – to the respective attendees. Use the PowerPoint presentation to discuss the issues, recommendations, rationale and next steps. Management will come with their questions, challenges, and points of view – but isn’t that what we want?

My belief is that you will not only have more effective meetings that reach better conclusions faster, but, over time, you will develop better talent and better leaders for your organization.

Ed Tazzia