the culture of "the deck"

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There are many things I've been delighted and impressed by during the nearly five months I've now spent at Microsoft. However, there have also been a few things that i've found extraordinarily disheartening. One of the latter has been the organizatational dependence on "the deck" (that is, Powerpoint files) as the standard mechanism for conveying nearly all information.

Tonight I was reading through one of the blogs I've recently added to my aggregator, the most-excellent Presentation Zen (by Garr Reynolds), and I came across a post entitled "The sound of one room napping." It included this wonderful passage, which sums up beautifully what I've been trying to say to the people around me at Microsoft:

Attempting to have slides serve both as projected visuals and as stand-alone handouts makes for bad visuals and bad documentation. Yet, this is a typical, acceptable approach. PowerPoint (or Keynote) is a tool for displaying visual information, information that helps you tell your story, make your case, or prove your point. PowerPoint is a terrible tool for making written documents, that's what word processors are for.

Why don't conference organizers request that speakers instead send a written document that covers the main points of their presentation with appropriate detail and depth? A Word or PDF document that is written in a concise and readable fashion with a bibliography and links to even more detail, for those who are interested, would be far more effective. When I get back home from the conference, do organizers really think I'm going to "read" pages full of PowerPoint slides? One does not read a printout of someone's two-month old PowerPoint slides, one guesses, decodes, and attempts to glean meaning from the series of low-resolution titles, bullets, charts, and clipart. At least they do that for a while...until they give up. With a written document, however, there is no reason for shallowness or ambiguity (assuming one writes well).

To be different and effective, use a well-written, detailed document for your handout and well-designed, simple, intelligent graphics for your visuals. Now that would be atypical.

I wish there was some way to make this (and Tufte's The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint, and Atkinson's Beyond Bullet Points) required reading for every Microsoft employee.

[Note to self and colleagues: Use your powers for good. Make the above resources required reading in introductory IT classes.]

1 TrackBack

Presentation Tips from Brian Groth's Life at Microsoft on November 27, 2005 3:38 PM

How do you try to pitch an idea to peers or upper management? I use PowerPoint probably more often than... Read More


I'm sure that you could have asked any number of IT students and they would have told you the same thing. Trying to learn the Hamming code off of a .PPT made me want to claw at my eyeballs.

Drives me crazy as well. It is amazing to me when I get a one page PowerPoint that could more easily be done in a Word document and been much smaller and easier to use.
Actually a lot of meetings could be handled by mailing a document (in Word perhaps) and not by making people listen through someone reading poorly written slides that are either too complex for a talk or too bare for documentation and notes.

You should read "Really Bad PowerPoint and How to Avoid it!" By Seth Goden. No more than six words per slide!

Excellent points. I've founds that there's a current "storm" around presentations. You've already commented on my heroes over at Presentation Zen. Check out the last few days over at They've got a few pointers to presentation commentary as well. The blend has been useful.

Great blog.

I'm with you, except I'd like to make it required for our upper-division Professional Writing course. This seems like a great piece (or, actually, set of pieces) to open up discussion about presentations, software and style choices. I'll keep in it my file for the next time I teach this course.

Guilty as charged. One question and two comments.

Slide 1: Is this problem unique to Microsoft or particularly acute at Microsoft?

Slide 2: With the widespread adoption and increasingly accepted use of public and internal weblogs by Microsoft employees (since 2003), I think that it can be argued that weblogs (viewed both online and via RSS/XML feeds) have been gaining ground on "the deck" as communication tool inside the firewall.

Slide 3: Although PowerPoint is my primary tool as a Product Manager at Microsoft, when I put on my Product Planner hat, which is roughly 50% of my time, I use Visio for "visual specs" and WinWord for whitepapers and product specs almost exclusively. I think that this varies by individual and product group. It is an interesting cultural observation nonetheless.

Korby, I've seen almost no real use of internal blogs by any of the groups I've interacted with since I've been here, and zero use of wikis (with the exception of the excellent Mac configuration info on the internal MacBU wiki).

It's definitely not unique to Microsoft (see the Presentation Zen article refernced above, which wasn't targeting MS at all), but it's strikingly commonplace here.

I do think there's variation across units, though.

Interesting the use of the term "Deck" for a Powerpoint "structure". This ties across to Apple HyperCard which, as I recall uses the same terminology. Of course, this reminds me of an anecdote that Bill Joy, who developed Hypercard, attributed (privately) to Bob Wyman, now of, the internals approach of Hypercard, to Bobs approach to the internals of "All-in-one" - the DEC character cell based office automation system.

Peter--I hadn't heard the use of "deck" for Powerpoint files until coming to Microsoft, but since then I've noticed it being used not just here but in other business contexts as well. I never heard it used by academic colleagues.

(I think you meant Bill Atkinson, not Bill Joy...)

To Peter Quodling: It was, in fact, Bill Atkinson of Apple, not Bill Joy of Sun who should be credited with creating Hypercard. The connection to ALL-IN-1 (note the spelling...) comes from the fact that Hypercard was, in part, a reaction to the proposal by Apple's MIS department that everyone at Apple -- including the Mac/Lisa developers -- use ALL-IN-1 for corporate email instead of continuing with a variety of Compuserve and other external email systems. The graphical interface developers were horrified by the idea of being forced to run VT100 Character Cell Terminal Emulators on their beautiful machines and as a result caused us great "difficulty" in the Apple account... So, we started to work on a "Mac/ALL-IN-1". But, work on that project was put on hold once Apple started to develop Hypercard. The architectural connections between the two products are numerous. Most obvious, of course, is that the "Card" in Hypercard was an "FMS Form" in ALL-IN-1. Additionally, both forms and cards had embedded, interpreted code that called on a library of common building block functions. (Apple's syntax was MUCH prettier than the syntax we used in ALL-IN-1 although ALL-IN-1 had a much more powerful libary of built-in functions).
I should probably say that I've never personally confirmed the relationship between ALL-IN-1 and Hypercard with Atkinson himself. My contacts at the time were primarily with the Apple MIS department and with other developers in the company. However, the similarities are striking and I was told on numerous occaisions at the time that "Atkinson is building a Mac version of ALL-IN-1." I must admit that I've always been a bit irritated by the similarities... Other companies that had products that inherited a great deal from ALL-IN-1 have traditionally been more open about it. For instance, Lotus and Iris have never hidden that much of Lotus Notes owes a great deal to ALL-IN-1 and the "New Notes" project that I ran at Digital... But, as I said before, I've never confirmed from Atkinson himself what the relationship was.
As far as the "deck" word goes, we used to use that word to refer to stacks of transparencies that were used in overhead projectors. They looked like large "decks" of cards. The word "deck" was in use long before ALL-IN-1. In ALL-IN-1, we spoke of "forms."

Hopefully, this little trip back into history was either useful or interesting...

bob wyman

I agree with the term reference to "deck" but I learned this when I worked supporting supporting the Navy. Because they used overheads, they would call each overhead a "foil" and the pack of foils as a "deck". The term stayed even as we were using Harvard Graphics 1.1 for our presentations.

It goes way beyond that Elizabeth. My youngest kids who are aged 9 to 10 glory in the fact that their teachers want them to do these decks!

When I hit back with assertion that we are living in the 21st Century and when living in the 21st Century do what 21st "Centurions" do - I get a look back that makes the average I-Pod listener look tuned and fully aware of his external environment. I guess Rome isn't roaming quite yet.

I am with you, make the PowerPoint the Titanic of modern communication - yep, its time someone sunk those deck chairs, instead of keeping on rearranging them again and again and again...


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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on November 19, 2005 6:43 PM.

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